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 bombmaking, 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 to the Bush administration about unilateral U.S. strikes against suspected terrorist bases in Pakistan's tribal belt.
The predawn attack occurred on the grounds of a former religious school near Azam Warsak, a village in the autonomous province of South Waziristan less than three miles from the Afghanistan border. Local residents reported hearing the sound of a drone aircraft in the area shortly before the attack, followed by explosions, the Reuters news agency reported. Local officials reported six killed, including four Egyptian nationals and two Pakistanis.
Two local Taliban sources contacted in South Waziristan confirmed that a top al-Qaida leader was killed in the attack and said the man was believed to be Masri. U.S. officials also cited early indications that Masri was among the victims, although they were still awaiting confirmation. Masri, 54, has been reported in the past to have been killed and then shown up alive.