NAGAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani forces targeted an Egyptian al Qaeda member in an overnight helicopter attack on a hideout near the Afghan border, and officials said on Thursday there was a good chance he was among 7 militants killed.
A Pakistani TV channel reported that an al Qaeda operative, wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, was killed, but officials said there was no confirmation.
Cobra helicopter gunships armed with missiles struck just before midnight on Wednesday in Nagar village, six km (four miles) south of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the government’s spokesman, said the strike was launched on the basis of information that a known Egyptian explosives expert was hiding in a walled compound in the village.
“We received a tip that Abdur Rehman al-Misri was hiding there and we conducted the raid. But there is no confirmation as yet about whether he was killed or not,” Ahmed said.
Misri is Arabic for Egyptian, while Abdur Rehman is similar to one of several aliases known to have been used by Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah, for whom the United States is offering a $5 million reward.
Neither Ahmed nor Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, Major-General Shaukat Sultan, could confirm whether it was the same man, but a senior military official based in Peshawar said it was likely.
“There is a strong possibility of him being one of those killed in action last night. But we have no confirmation of that as yet,” the official said. “He used to frequent that place.”
Atwah allegedly sat on the al Qaeda consultation council that approved the synchronized attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that killed 224 people.
Another conspirator in the Africa attacks, Tanzanian-born Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, was arrested in Pakistan in mid-2004.
Wali Mohammad Khan, a commander of local militants in Nagar, denied that any foreigners had been in the compound when it was attacked.
“They were all local tribesmen and the five bodies were immediately buried,” he told Reuters. The funeral of two others killed in the attack would be held later in the day, he added.
Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt has been infested with al Qaeda remnants and Taliban who fled Afghanistan after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.
A campaign to rid the tribal areas of al Qaeda switched to North Waziristan from South Waziristan last year, and there have been a series of fierce clashes in the past month and over 250, mostly tribal militants, have been killed since early March.
President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, last month warned foreign militants hiding in the tribal region to leave Pakistan or face annihilation.