Sunday, August 3, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) | A Taliban spokesman in Pakistan denied on Saturday a U.S. media report that al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri may have been killed or critically injured in a missile strike.

CBS News reported Friday that it had obtained a copy of an intercepted letter dated July 29 from unnamed sources in Pakistan, which urgently requested a doctor to treat Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant.

The letter was purportedly from Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and said that al-Zawahri is in “severe pain” and that his “injuries are infected.”

“We deny it categorically,” Mehsud spokesman Maulvi Umar told the Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location inside Pakistan.

Pakistan army and intelligence officials said they had no information that al-Zawahri was hit Monday in a missile strike apparently launched by the U.S. in South Waziristan, a volatile tribal region near the Afghan border.

Both bin Laden and al-Zawahri are thought to be hiding in the rugged and lawless tribal regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

There is increasing pressure from the West on the 4-month-old Pakistan government to act against Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in the frontier region with Afghanistan amid concern that peace deals have given militants more freedom to operate.

The U.S. military did not confirm that it was behind the missile strike. But similar strikes are periodically launched on militant targets in the tribal border region, and previous such attacks inside Pakistan are thought to have been conducted by the CIA using Predator drones.

A missile strike by a CIA Predator drone in the Bajur tribal region, north of Waziristan, in January 2006 apparently targeted but missed al-Zawahri.

Pakistani intelligence officials say they think al Qaeda explosives expert Abu Khabab al-Masri was among six people killed in Monday’s missile strike, but apparently they do not have the body.

Al-Masri also was reported killed in the January 2006 strike that targeted al-Zawahri, but his body was never found.

The missile strike on Monday hit a compound that used to be a religious school near Azam Warsak village, about two miles from the Afghan border. Mr. Umar said only religious students died in the attack.

“Whenever America targets and kills innocent people, it comes up with such propaganda, that it has killed a big personality, in an attempt to justify the cruelty it has done,” he said.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials and at least one pro-Taliban militant said they thought al-Masri had died in Monday’s strike, and an American official in Washington expressed cautious optimism. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Mehsud is the leader of a coalition of Taliban groups in Pakistan, and he was accused by the CIA of plotting the December assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

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