Nato air strike kills 'leading al-Qa'ida man' in Afghanistan

Nato announced yesterday that it had killed a top al-Qa'ida operative in an air strike two weeks ago, amid speculation that the group is returning to Afghanistan as foreign troops abandon remote mountain outposts to concentrate on densely populated towns and valleys.

Abu Hafs al-Najdi, also known as Abdul Ghani, was a Saudi who "directed al-Qa'ida operations" in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, running training camps, sourcing weapons, managing al-Qa'ida finances and orchestrating attacks, Nato said. He was second on the coalition's list of most-wanted insurgents and had been a high-priority target since 2007.

On the morning of his death, he is thought to have directed a suicide attack that killed 10 Afghan civilians, the alliance said.

Alongside al-Najdi at the time of the air strike was another al-Qa'ida leader known as Waqas, who was also killed, taking the number of al-Qa'ida operatives assassinated over the past month to 25.

There is no way of independently verifying the information, which comes a day after the Nato-trained Afghan security forces suffered a blow with the escape of 475 Taliban prisoners from a jail in Kandahar.

But there has been speculation that years after it was largely driven out of Afghanistan by the 2001 US invasion, al'Qa'ida is making a comeback. US and Afghan officials fear that as Nato withdraws troops from remote outposts where they are caught up in battles of attrition that bring limited returns, al-Qa'ida operatives are slipping back into the mountain fastnesses. "Al-Qa'ida tends to navigate to areas where they sense a vacuum," Seth Jones, a political scientist at Rand Corp, told The Wall Street Journal.

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