PESHAWAR, Pakistan, (Reuters) – Rashid Rauf, a British militant with al Qaeda links, was killed along with an Egyptian by a suspected U.S. missile strike in northwest Pakistan on Saturday, Pakistani television channels and intelligence officers said.
Rauf, the suspected ringleader of a 2006 plot to blow up trans-atlantic airliners using liquid explosives, was among five victims of an attack believed to have been launched by a U.S. pilotless drone aircraft in the North Waziristan tribal region.
The plot, which was uncovered with the help of Pakistani intelligence, had the potential to kill on the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks and resulted in tighter controls on cabin luggage hand-carried on board by air passengers worldwide.
Intelligence officers in northwest Pakistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Rauf, who escaped from custody after appearing in an Islamabad court last December, had been killed, though there was no official confirmation.
They named the dead Egyptian as Abu Zubair al-Masri. Arab casualties are usually taken as a sign of an al Qaeda presence. Several Pakistani news channels also reported the death of the 27-year-old Rauf and his Egyptian cohort.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are investigating the reports.”
Taliban spokesman Ahmedullah Ahmedi issued a statement in North Waziristan saying all those killed in the missile strike were locals and vowed revenge would be taken on the government outside tribal lands.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has said he will be visiting Pakistan next week, though the exact dates have been ithheld for security reasons.
Arrested in Pakistan in August 2006, Rauf, who is of Pakistani origin, had travelled to Pakistan in 2002 after the murder of an uncle in Britain. His extradition was originally sought by Britain in connection with the murder. During his time in Pakistan, Rauf married a relative of one of Pakistan’s most notorious militant leaders, Azhar Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish-e-Mohammad.
While Jaish has been principally focused on fighting in Indian Kashmir, some splinter groups joined al Qaeda’s cause.
Pakistani authorities were embarrassed by Rauf’s escape last year, and there was considerable speculation over the ease with which he made his getaway.
The missile strike said to have killed him targeted a house near the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, and came just two days after Pakistan lodged a protest with the U.S. ambassador over missile attacks on its territory.
Villages around Mir Ali have been targeted before. The area has been a hive of Taliban and al Qaeda activity in the past. “According to our information two missiles were fired by the drone on a house,” an intelligence officer in the region said. “We have confirmed reports of five people killed and six injured,” another intelligence official said.
Missile-armed drones are primarily used by U.S. forces in the region. The United States seldom confirms drone attacks. Pakistan does not have any combat drones.
There have been at least 20 strikes in the last three months, reflecting U.S. impatience over militants from Pakistan fuelling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and fears that al Qaeda fighters in northwest Pakistan could plan attacks in the West.
Pakistan says the attacks violate its sovereignty, undermine efforts to win public support for the fight against militancy, and make it harder to justify the U.S. alliance.
A U.S. commando raid in September caused outrage in Pakistan, and there have been no incursions by ground troops since. The attack on Wednesday that sparked the diplomatic protest was unusual in that it took place deeper in Pakistani territory, in Bannu district, an area outside the semi-autonomous tribal lands bordering Afghanistan where most attacks have taken place.
An Arab killed in the attack in Bannu was identified by a Pakistani intelligence officer as a known al Qaeda operative, Abdullah Azam al-Saudi, but there was no other corroboration.
A rocket attack by militants killed three policemen at a checkpost in Bannu overnight, officials said.
A truck convoy carrying supplies to Western forces in Afghanistan was hit by a roadside bomb in the Khyber region. Witnesses said two people were seriously wounded.
Pakistani warplanes bombed militant positions in the Bajaur tribal region, killing 13 fighters. The military says more than 1,500 militants have been killed while 73 soldiers have also died in fighting in Bajaur since August, though no independent verification of casualties is available.