Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Top al-Qaida Commander Killed

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Abu Laith al-Libi, a top al-Qaida commander in Afghanistan who was blamed for bombing a base while Vice President Cheney was visiting last year, has been killed, according to a militant Web site.

Al-Libi was a key link between the Taliban and al-Qaida and was one of the Americans' 12 most-wanted men with a bounty of $200,000 on his head.

The Web site, which frequently carries announcements from militant groups, said al-Libi had been "martyred" but did not say where he was killed.

"We congratulate the Islamic nation for the martyrdom of the sheik, the lion, Abu Laith al-Libi," said a banner which appeared in a section of the Web site reserved for affiliated militant groups and not open to public posting.

Earlier, there had been reports of an attack on militants in a Pakistani village. Pakistani intelligence officials and local residents said a missile hit a compound about 2.5 miles outside Mir Ali in North Waziristan late Monday or early Tuesday, destroying the facility.

Residents said they were not allowed to approach the site of the blast and the Pakistan government and military said they did not know who fired the missile. Local officials said foreigners were targeted in the attack.

One intelligence official in the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the bodies of those killed were badly mangled by the force of the explosion and it was difficult to identify them. The official estimated 12 people were killed, including Arabs, Turkemen from central Asia and local Taliban members.

Two top officials of Pakistan's Interior Ministry said they could not confirm al-Libi's death and were still trying to gather details on the missile strike. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the attack.

A knowledgeable Western official said that "it appears at this point that al-Libi has met his demise," but declined to talk about the circumstances. "It was a major success in taking one of the top terrorists in the world off the street," the official said. He added that the death occurred "within the last few days."

U.S.-led coalition and NATO-led force in Afghanistan could not confirm al-Libi's death. An official with the NATO-led force said they were picking up some signals from the Web, but could not confirm whether al-Libi was dead.

"There is no confirmation from our side," said a NATO official in Kabul on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Pakistani counterterrorism officials say he was an al-Qaida spokesman and commander in eastern Afghanistan.

The U.S. says al-Libi - whose name means "the Libyan" in Arabic - was likely behind the February 2007 bombing at the U.S. base at Bagram in Afghanistan during a visit by Cheney. The attack killed 23 people but Cheney was deep inside the sprawling base and was not hurt.

The bombing added to the impression that Western forces and the shaky government of President Hamid Karzai are vulnerable to assault by Taliban and al-Qaida militants.

Al-Libi also led an al-Qaida training camp and appeared in a number of al-Qaida Internet videos.

Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said last year that al-Libi was a guerrilla fighter "knowledgeable about how to conduct suicide bombing missions and how to inflict the most civilian casualties." He had probably directed "one or more terror training camps," Belcher said.

Belcher said al-Libi had been the subject of "especially close focus" by U.S. intelligence since 2005, when U.S. forces destroyed a militant training camp believed set up by al-Libi in the eastern Afghan province of Khost. That was an admission that terror camps continued to operate on Afghan soil since the Taliban regime's ouster more than five years ago.

Belcher described al-Libi as "transient," moving where he thinks he can count on support.

"Terrorists like al-Libi use the rugged terrain of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to conceal themselves while they plan violent insurgent activities. Our sources indicate that Abu Laith al-Libi favors tribal regions, including North Waziristan," Belcher said.

North Waziristan is a lawless enclave in neighboring Pakistan where last year the Pakistani government reached a peace deal with pro-Taliban militants. U.S. officials have since expressed concern that al-Qaida could be regrouping in Pakistan's border zone.

Mir Ali is the second largest town in North Waziristan and has a strong presence of foreign militants, mostly Uzbeks with links to al-Qaida who fled to Pakistan's tribal regions after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.

A Pakistani intelligence official said that al-Libi had stayed until late 2003 in the North Waziristan village of Norak, about three miles outside Mir Ali, where he had several compounds. Norak is about nine miles from where the missile struck this week.

Al-Libi shifted inside Afghanistan after he took charge of al-Qaida operations on both sides of the border area, but retained links with Norak, the official said.



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