SLAMABAD, Pakistan - A man described as al-Qaida's operational commander has died in an explosion in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, the president said Saturday, with intelligence officials claiming Hamza Rabia was hunted down with U.S. help, then killed in a rocket attack.
The remains of Rabia, who was ranked between third and fifth in the terror network's hierarchy and was a key associate of al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, were identified with a DNA test, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.
In Washington, a senior U.S. defense official said he could not confirm that Rabia was dead. The official did say that Rabia is believed to be the successor to Abu Farraj al-Libbi as the chief of international operations.
Rabia had been linked to a number of terror attacks and murders of government officials in Pakistan's tribal areas bordering
Afghanistan. He had risen to al-Qaida operational commander following the May arrest of Abu Farraj al-Libbi in northwestern Pakistan, Ahmed said. Al-Libbi was later handed over to Washington's custody.
"He was al-Qaida's No. 5 and this is what we know," Ahmed told The Associated Press.
However, other officials said Rabia ranked as high as third, just behind
Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahari.
The circumstances surrounding Rabia's death Thursday were unclear as Pakistan ? a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism that walks a fine line while trying to avoid angering Islamic conservatives ? downplayed suggestions that it hunted him down.
When the story first broke, officials said six rockets had been fired on a village near Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area, and that one had hit a house, killing five people.
The government later issued a revised report that the men, inside what was believed to be an al-Qaida safehouse, had blown themselves up while handling explosives.
Three intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media, said Saturday that the original story was correct, with one claiming that U.S. assistance had played a critical role in tracking down Rabia and "eliminating the threat" that he posed.
The Dawn newspaper reported that rockets were fired from unmanned aircraft, and one intelligence official said a missile strike triggered a huge explosion in a stockpile of bomb-making materials, grenades and other munitions.
Miran Shah is a strategic tribal region where remnants of al-Qaida are believed to have been hiding and where Pakistani forces have launched several operations against them.
Intelligence officials said Rabia ? who is Syrian ? had been brought to the area by al-Zawahri, who is believed to have been on the run along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
However, officials said they have no clue on the whereabouts of al-Zawahri or Osama bin Laden.
Another official, who also didn't want to be named due to the sensitive nature of his job, said Rabi became operational commander of the terror network after the arrests of al-Libbi, known to be al-Qaida's No. 3 leader. Al-Libbi ? who twice tried to assassinate Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for making the Islamic nation a key ally of the United States in its war on terror ? was later turned over to Washington for further investigation.
Associates from outside Pakistan retrieved the bodies of Rabia and two other foreigners and buried them in an unknown location, the Dawn newspaper report said.
Military officials have said hundreds of Arab, Afghan and Central Asian militants are in North and South Waziristan.
Pakistan ? a key ally of the United States in the war against terrorism ? has deployed thousands of troops in the area, fighting intense battles with militants and killing and capturing several of them.
What this means is that the Pakistani's may be letting the CIA and covert military operate in Pakistan. Bin Laden slips by on each side of the border between pakistan and afghanistan like he's a silly kid. Well sending a missle equipped UAV might do the job.