Facebook Twitter

At least 5 suspected terrorists killed, Pakistan officials say

SHARE At least 5 suspected terrorists killed, Pakistan officials say
Pakistani Shiite Muslims shout slogans during the funeral of religious scholar Agha Hassan Zakri and a police officer in Quetta, Pakistan, Saturday.

Pakistani Shiite Muslims shout slogans during the funeral of religious scholar Agha Hassan Zakri and a police officer in Quetta, Pakistan, Saturday.

Arshad Butt, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — A fugitive al-Qaida operative and at least four other extremist fighters were killed Saturday in a suspected U.S. missile strike in a tribal area of northwest Pakistan, according to two Pakistani intelligence officials.

The Pakistani intelligence officials in the restive tribal area of North Waziristan said the dead operative was Rashid Rauf, a man who held dual Pakistani and British citizen and who has been linked to a 2006 plot to blow up British airliners.

The attack came from an unmanned U.S. Predator drone that fired at least two Hellfire missiles at a suspected Taliban compound in the tribal village of Ali Khel in the morning, according to the intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about missile strikes. The dead also included at least three foreign fighters, the officials said.

Rauf, a former resident of the northern British town of Birmingham, was the suspected ringleader in an alleged al-Qaida plot to blow up commercial jetliners at airports in London. He was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Bahawalpur in August 2006 after British officials learned of the alleged terrorist operation, which authorities said included a plan to smuggle liquid explosives and camera flash detonators on board at least 10 airplanes. The plot led to widespread new restrictions for items carried onto planes by travelers.

In London, a Foreign Office spokesman said British officials were investigating reports that Rauf had been killed but could not confirm his death, according to The Associated Press.

Before his arrest, Rauf's ties to the Pakistani terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed stirred strong suspicions among intelligence experts that he may have also had connections with rogue elements within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, also known as the ISI. Banned in Pakistan, Jaish-e-Mohammed played a leading role in the ISI-supported proxy war with India over the disputed northern territory of Kashmir. The group is widely suspected to be behind the abduction and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.

Rauf's association with the group is believed to have begun around the time when he married a close relative of Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Maulana Masood Azhar.

A Pakistani court dropped terrorism charges against Rauf in late 2007. Pakistani authorities, nonetheless, offered to extradite Rauf to Britain in connection with the airliner plot. But suspicions about Rauf's connections to Pakistani intelligence agencies deepened after he escaped from custody in December 2007. Pakistani security officials said Rauf slipped out of his handcuffs after police allowed him to stop at a mosque in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

Rauf's attorney at the time, Hashmat Habib, claimed Rauf was subsequently taken into ISI custody. Until Saturday's strike in North Waziristan, Rauf's whereabouts were not publicly known.

Reached at his offices in Pakistan on Wednesday, Habib said he was aware of the reports of Rauf's death but could not confirm whether he had been killed in the attack.

The missile strike in Ali Khel was the second to occur this week in part of what is a stepped up U.S. campaign this year to target al-Qaida and Taliban safe havens along the mountainous border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The surge in Predator activity has resulted in 21 strikes since August that U.S. military officials say have had a debilitating effect on militant operations in the region.

On Wednesday, Pakistani security officials said six extremist fighters were killed in a missile strike near the district of Bannu deep in northwest Pakistan, including an al-Qaida operative known by the nom de guerre Abdullah Azzam al-Saudi. The aerial bombing drew sharp protests from Pakistani officials, prompting the country's Foreign Ministry to lodge a formal complaint with U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson.

The recent series of cross border drone attacks have also drawn criticism from Pakistan's top military officer, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Earlier this week, Kayani, who formerly headed the ISI, urged NATO officials to halt the missile strikes during a two-day visit to the military organization's headquarters in Brussels. Kayani and other top Pakistani officials have said that collateral damage and civilian deaths from the missile strikes could stir rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S.-led war against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.