ISLAMABAD,(Reuters) – A senior al Qaeda commander is believed to have been killed in a tribal region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, a leading Pakistani newspaper reported on Saturday, though there was no official confirmation.
The daily Dawn, citing unnamed sources, identified the man as Abu Hamza Rabia, operational commander of al Qaeda, and said he was among five militants killed in the North Waziristan tribal region on Thursday.
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed could not immediately confirm the report.
Hamza, an Egyptian, was said to be of the same rank as Abu Faraj Farj al Liby, who was dubbed by the United States as al Qaeda”s third-most important leader after he was captured in Pakistan last May.
Officials had said on Thursday that five militants were killed when a blast destroyed the house they were staying in, but residents of the troubled region said a helicopter fired rockets into the house.
Dawn reported that Hamza”s body was not recovered from the ruins, but was taken away by his comrades, along with the bodies of two other foreign militants.
Intelligence officials told Reuters that Hamza was using the alias ”Nawab”, and they subsequently intercepted a message passed between militants saying Nawab was dead.
Hamza headed the foreign affairs department of Osama bin Laden”s militant group, according to officials.
Dawn said Hamza escaped an attack by Pakistani security forces on Nov. 5 in the same region. However, eight people, including his wife and children, were killed in that operation.
There were further incidents in North Waziristan on Friday.
A power utility manager was kidnapped along with his two guards, by armed men who commandeered their car, tribal agency officials said.
And later, guerrillas fired two rockets at an army camp in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, but there were no reports of any casualities.
Many al Qaeda members took refuge in Pakistan”s semi-autonomous tribal belt after U.S.-led forces ousted Afghanistan”s Taliban in late 2001 for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
While Pakistani security forces have killed hundreds of al Qaeda members over the past four years, several of their key leaders were arrested and handed over to the United States.
Pakistani forces launched an offensive in South Waziristan early last year after President Pervez Musharraf vowed to clear foreign militants from Pakistani soil.
Hundreds of militants and Pakistani troops have been killed in battles in the rugged region and about 70,000 Pakistani troops are now concentrating their search in neighbouring North Waziristan.