Key Al Qaeda Figure Reported Killed in Blast

Pakistani authorities say senior al Qaeda commander Abu Hamza Rabia was reported killed Friday in an explosion in a tribal region bordering Afghanistan. BBC correspondent Zaffar Abbas discusses the news with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

A top al-Qaeda figure, Abu Hamza Rabia, died yesterday in an explosion in a remote area of western Pakistan near the Afghanistan border. BBC correspondent Zafar Abbas joins us from Islamabad.

Thanks very much for being with us.

ZAFAR ABBAS reporting:

Thank you.

SIMON: And Pakistan's president, General Pervaiz Musharraf, made the announcement about this death earlier today. Tell us, please, what you know about Abu Hamza Rabia and his role in al-Qaeda.

ABBAS: What his role in al-Qaeda has been--very little is known about that. He is from Egypt, and the first time his name really came up was earlier this year when another senior al-Qaeda figure, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, somebody who was believed to be a head of the Pakistani militants in this region, was arrested and later handed over to the United States. And then it was said that probably this person, Abu Hamza Rabia, had taken over Abu Faraj al-Libbi's role and was operating within Pakistan and probably had been going inside Afghanistan, too.

SIMON: Zafar, what's known about the operation in which he died?

ABBAS: The Pakistani authorities say there was an explosion inside a house which later on they said was a hideout of al-Qaeda operators in the region. And the suggestion has been that probably they were making some kind of a bomb or explosive device over there which went off. But the local tribesmen over there say that it was part of the Pakistani military's operation in which a number of helicopter gunships were used and rockets were fired at this place. And five people died, two of them believe to be foreign militants, and one of them was Hamza Rabia.

SIMON: So there's considerably different events. One is--has the al-Qaeda people blowing themselves up. The other has a Pakistani military operation with military gunships.

ABBAS: Absolutely. What seems to be happening is this is a tribal region of Waziristan really known for hard-line Islamic militants who have traditionally been supportive of the Taliban inside Afghanistan. And for the last two years, the Pakistani military has remained involved in a major operation over there to flush out these foreign militants, to arrest the Taliban and their supporters, and this was one such operation in which the military was involved. But that these people got killed because of the rockets fired from the helicopter or there was an explosion inside, we really don't know.

SIMON: Can Abu Hamza Rabia be tied to specific terrorist incidents that we might recognize?

ABBAS: There have been all kinds of incidents in this region. Whether Hamza Rabia was really involved in one particular incident, we really don't know. What we really know is this particular area of Pakistan's tribal belt has a number of al-Qaeda figures who have easily found hideouts over there, have found refuge over there, and lately the Pakistani authorities have arrested some people. Others have been killed. So one can say that this is still the main place where al-Qaeda people have easily operated in the past and are still doing so.

SIMON: So I don't have to tell you the sincerity of Pakistani military and officials in tracking down some of the al-Qaeda network has sometimes been questioned.

ABBAS: Well, that's absolutely correct, and one has to remember one thing, that some key figures of al-Qaeda have been arrested from the Pakistan soil in the last three years, certainly since 9/11, people like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and many others. So yes, it's true that people have remained here and have found refuge over there, but Pakistani authorities have also been involved in arresting a large number of people. Almost all of them have been handed over to the United States. But the fact that al-Qaeda people continue to come into Pakistan, find refuge among local Islamic schools or madrassas, as they are known over here, seems to indicate that they do have some sympathy among the local Islamic groups in Pakistan.

SIMON: BBC correspondent Zafar Abbas, speaking from Islamabad, thank you very much.

ABBAS: Thank you.

SIMON: And the time here on WEEKEND EDITION is 18 past the hour.

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