Pakistan: U.S. Strike Killed Some Al Qaeda Leaders

Pakistani government sources report that four senior al Qaeda figures were among those killed in a U.S. missile strike on a village near the Afghan border last week. Al Qaeda's No. 2 official, Ayman al-Zawahiri — the intended target of the attack — was not hurt.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

As we just heard, the new tape from bin Laden comes on the heels of an American air strike in Pakistan. Pakistani officials say that at least four high-ranking members were killed in that attack, an attack which also killed civilian women and children.

NPR's Philip Reeves has the latest on the terrorist situation in South Asia.

PHILIP REEVES: Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe not, but the latest audiotape purportedly from Osama bin Laden has emerged at a time when his al Qaeda network is under new and intensified pressure. Reports are today circulating worldwide quoting unnamed Pakistani intelligence sources, saying four apparently senior al Qaeda operatives were killed in what's believed was a missile strike from an unmanned CIA predator drone. It was against a village close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

REEVES: U.S. officials have been privately saying this man was the target, al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He, too, has made propaganda tapes in the past. It turns out he wasn't killed, but news reports said Pakistani officials believe among the four al Qaeda men who they think did die was Zawahiri's son-in-law, Abdul Rahman al-Maghrebi, an important figure in al Qaeda's media operation.

Another is thought to have been an Egyptian with a $5 million reward on his head from the U.S. government, a man called Midhat Al Sayid Umar. U.S. investigators believe he's trained hundreds of militants in Afghanistan, and has been handing out manuals containing instructions on how to make chemical and biological weapons.

These claims are hard to verify. Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, who's an expert on al Qaeda and Taliban, says Pakistanis will treat such information with skepticism, because the authorities have already offered too many differing versions of last Friday's attack.

AHMED RASHID: First we were told that there were only civilians, that there were no al Qaeda. Then we were that there may be some. Then we were told that there may be two. Now we are being told that there may be four. Now, I mean, who - nobody actually now believes anything anymore as to what the government is saying about this.

REEVES: One thing that doesn't seem to be in dispute is that 18 Pakistani civilians, women and children among them, were killed in the attack. Dr. Tahir Amin, a specialist in international relations in Pakistan, says this went down very badly on Pakistan's streets.

TAHIR AMIN: There was a widespread feeling of anger in Pakistan over the American strike, and people thought that it was a very blatant violation of the sovereignty of the country.

REEVES: The CIA attack prompted nationwide demonstrations against American interference, organized by Pakistan's religious parties but supported by others also. Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper, says part of the general public anger was because the Pakistani government failed at first to explain the attack targeted and hit al Qaeda militants.

NAJAM SETHI: Because that didn't take place earlier on, the perception was that it was a completely botched up operation, and the Pakistani government was completely not involved in it. Now the perception is beginning to dawn in that perhaps it was Pakistani intelligence that led the Americans to carry out that attack.

REEVES: This controversy has arisen at a particularly difficult time for Pakistan's president, the embattled General Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf is already grappling with the aftermath of the South Asia earthquake, Pakistan's worst natural disaster in living memory. Much of his army is deployed around the country, containing separatists in the province of Balochistan or pursuing Islamist militants, including al Qaeda members, among the mountains of Pakistan's wild western border.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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