WASHINGTON – An apparent U.S. missile strike on a compound in northwestern Pakistan killed six people early Monday, including a man believed to be a top al-Qaida operative and key figure in the terrorist group’s production of chemical weapons and conventional explosives, U.S. and Pakistani sources said.
The death of Abu Khabab al-Masri, if confirmed, would be the most significant blow against al-Qaida’s leadership in at least six months. The Egyptian-born chemical engineer is believed to have trained a generation of al-Qaida fighters in bomb-making, and he once spearheaded the group’s efforts to make biological and chemical weapons.
The strike coincided with a visit to Washington by Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, whose government has complained repeatedly to the Bush administration about unilateral U.S. strikes against suspected terrorist bases in Pakistan’s tribal belt.
The incident threatened to overshadow Gillani’s first trip to the United States as Pakistan’s prime minister, a visit in which both Gillani and President Bush sought to play down growing tensions between the two nations. Gillani secured a pledge from Bush to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty in exchange for promises from Islamabad to increase efforts against insurgents.
“This is our own war,” Gillani said. “This is a war which is against Pakistan.”
Without mentioning the strike, Bush said his administration “supports the sovereignty of Pakistan,” an apparent reference to public opposition in Pakistan to U.S. military activity there. He also said Gillani had made a “strong commitment” to making sure that the border with Afghanistan “is secure as best as possible.”
Later, in an interview with CNN, Gillani was asked whether the missile strike was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. “Certainly,” he said, adding, “There should be more cooperation on the intelligence side, so that when there is a credible and actionable information given to us, we will hit ourselves.”