Al-Qaida commander’s death increasingly certain

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani authorities are nearly certain that a recent U.S. missile strike killed one of the most wanted leaders of al-Qaida, but the lack of a body still leaves some room for doubt, a security official said Sunday.

The missile strike against Ilyas Kashmiri came a month after the U.S. raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden’s death has been followed by a wave of militant violence in Pakistan, including a bomb early Sunday that killed six people in the country’s northwest.

U.S. officials have described Kashmiri as al-Qaida’s military operations chief in Pakistan, and he was on a list of the five most wanted militants believed to be in the country. The 47-year-old was suspected in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, and accused of slaughtering many Pakistanis as well.

He also was suspected of aiding plots against Western targets, and was named a defendant in an American court over a planned attack on a Danish newspaper that published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

It was unclear how Kashmiri was tracked down, but Pakistan and the U.S. recently agreed to jointly target him and a handful of other militant leaders as part of measures to repair relations badly strained by the unilateral May 2 American raid against bin Laden, officials have said.

The Pakistani security official said Sunday that the weekend reports of Kashmiri’s death were “95 percent confirmed,” as authorities have checked with various sources. It’s unlikely authorities will ever find the body to reach 100 percent certainty — militants usually quickly dispose of colleagues’ corpses.

Photographic evidence or DNA samples may help, but verifying the dead in drone strikes is generally difficult. Initial reports have turned out to be wrong in the past, including one in September 2009 that said Kashmiri had been killed.

A cell phone video taken by a local tribesman and obtained by The Associated Press shows several bodies in an orchard where the missiles are said to have exploded. One face was shown, that of a thinly bearded man, possibly in his 30s, but it was not clear if it was Kashmiri.

A purported photo of Kashmiri’s body along with a statement confirming his death from a militant group were released over the weekend.

The photo shows the body of a clean-shaven man with short dark hair. The face looks bruised and battered, and the right eye is slightly open, but it is difficult to tell if it matches other pictures of Kashmiri. The militant is said to be missing a finger and blind in one eye.

The photo was posted along with the fax on a militant website, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi media. Journalists in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar also received the faxed statement.

The fax said it was from the Kashmiri-led Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami’s feared “313 Brigade.” It said Kashmiri was “martyred” in Friday’s 11:15 p.m. strike close to Wana town in Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border.

The statement and photo’s authenticity could not be independently confirmed. The group, which has not previously communicated with the media, promised revenge against America in the handwritten statement on a white page bearing its name.

Pakistani intelligence officials said Friday that nine people died in the strike. U.S. officials have said they were not able to immediately confirm if Kashmiri was among the dead.

The U.S. relies heavily on the drone-fired missile strikes to go after militants hiding in Pakistan’s tribal regions, but Islamabad officially opposes the drone-fired missile strikes as a violation of its sovereignty. Still, Pakistan is believed to have aided in at least some of the strikes in the past.

Pakistani officials have declined to say whether there was cooperation with the U.S. in Friday’s strike. American and Pakistani officials speaking about Kashmiri all requested anonymity because of department policy and the subject’s sensitivity.

Considered to be one of al-Qaida’s most accomplished terrorists, Kashmiri has been mentioned by security analysts as a contender for replacing bin Laden as head of the group, though many thought the fact that he was not an Arab diminished his chances.

Kashmiri’s alleged involvement in attacks on Pakistanis may mute public outrage here over the drone strike that purportedly killed him. The drone strikes are generally unpopular among Pakistanis who believe they kill many innocent civilians.

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Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report. Nahal Toosi can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/nahaltoosi.

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