Key figure in al-Qaida is dead, Pakistan says

NEW DELHI – An Egyptian believed to be commander of al-Qaida international terrorism operations was killed last week in Pakistan’s mountainous border region near Afghanistan, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said Saturday.

Abu Hamza Rabia died Thursday in an explosion in the tribal area of North Waziristan, Musharraf said during a visit to Kuwait.

Pakistani information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who was traveling with Musharraf, described Rabia as either No. 3 or No. 5 in the al-Qaida hierarchy. In Washington, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official agreed that Rabia was responsible for international planning, including operations against the United States.

“People like to put numbers on these people, and we try to stay away from that,” the counterterrorism official said. “But no one would take issue with (Rabia) being described as the No. 3 behind (Osama) bin Laden and Zawahiri. He’s a senior member of al-Qaida, and this is a significant blow to them.”

Pakistani and American officials have said they believe bin Laden is still alive and probably hiding somewhere along the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. His top lieutenant, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to rally the network’s supporters in several recent video and audio tapes.

Rabia was said to have taken over al-Qaida’s international operations after the capture of Libyan Abu Faraj Farj al Libbi in May. Farj was handed over to U.S. authorities in June, and his current whereabouts have not been disclosed. Farj was seen as the successor to Sept. 11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003.

Contrasting reports quickly emerged about the circumstances surrounding Rabia’s death.

Pakistani authorities said Rabia was killed along with five other militants when bomb-making materials exploded in a house where they were hiding in the village of Asoray, east of Miranshah, the region’s administrative capital.

But Pakistan’s English-language Dawn newspaper reported that the explosions were caused by several missiles from an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, striking the house around 1:45 a.m. Thursday.

Local residents heard six explosions and, according to the Dawn report, “three foreigners of Middle Eastern origin,” including Rabia, were later pulled from the rubble and buried in an undisclosed location. The report quoted unnamed officials and tribal witnesses.

The U.S. repeatedly has flown drones armed with missiles along the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But armed operations by foreign forces are a sensitive political issue for Musharraf, so if the U.S. was involved in Rabia’s death, Pakistan’s government would be unlikely to confirm it.

Pakistan has called Rabia one of a group of extremists involved in attempts to assassinate Musharraf in 2003. In August 2004, the government offered rewards for Rabia and others, with experts saying at that time that Rabia ranked eighth in al-Qaida’s hierarchy.

Musharraf has said that numerous raids and military offensives in the Pashtun tribal areas of North and South Waziristan have severely disrupted al-Qaida’s ability to plan and carry out terrorist attacks.

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