Ali Imam  /  Reuters file
Pakistani tribesmen search a house which was destroyed after a missile strike in Damadola on Saturday. Al-Qaida's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert Midhat Mursi, 52, was believed killed in the strike.
updated 1/19/2006 10:29:00 AM ET 2006-01-19T15:29:00

An al-Qaida explosives and chemical weapons expert and a relative of the terror network’s No. 2 leader were among four top operatives believed killed in a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan last week, Pakistani security officials said Thursday.

The three security officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media, said the al-Qaida figures were believed to have been in Damadola village near the Afghan border at the time of Friday’s attack but their bodies have not been recovered. The attack also killed 18 civilians.

The officials said the operatives included Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, 52, who the U.S. Justice Department calls an explosives and poisons expert. The Egyptian also has distributed training manuals with recipes for chemical and biological weapons and trained hundreds of fighters at a terrorist camp near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad before the ouster of the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001.

Umar is suspected of training the suicide bombers who killed 17 U.S. sailors in the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, according to Mohamed Salah, a Cairo expert on Islamic extremists.

The Justice Department’s Web site says the exact whereabouts of Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, are unknown but that he may be living in Pakistan. It offers $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

3 more high level targets possibly hit
According to the Pakistani officials, the other militants possibly killed included Abu Obaidah al-Masri, the al-Qaida chief responsible for attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, across the border from the strike site; and Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, a Moroccan and relative of al-Zawahri, possibly his son-in-law.

One of the officials said al-Maghribi was involved in public relations for al-Qaida and helped distribute statements, CDs and videos publicizing the group. In particular, al-Maghribi had contacts with Arab journalists and kept them abreast of al-Qaida news, he said.

Image: Villagers pray
Mohammad Zubair  /  AP
Villagers pray at graves of people who were killed by U.S. strikes in Damadola, Pakistan, on Saturday in the Pakistani tribal area of Bajour.

Some of the officials also said a fourth man, Khalid Habib, the al-Qaida operations chief along the Afghan-Pakistan border, was believed to be dead. The officials said Habib had planned assassination attacks on Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and is associated with Abu Farraj al-Libbi, a top al-Qaida figure arrested in northwestern Pakistan in May.

Pentagon officials said they had no information on the reported identities of the dead, and CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said the agency could not comment.

Pakistani authorities previously said four or five foreign militants were killed in the airstrike, which officials say targeted — but missed — al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top aide. The strike has angered many in the Islamic country, prompting street protests over the weekend.

About 1,000 protesters also marched through the northwestern city of Peshawar on Thursday, chanting “Death to America” and “Jihad, Jihad.”

Pakistan maintains it was not given advance word of the airstrike, which was reportedly carried out by unmanned Predator drones flying from Afghanistan, and has condemned the killing of innocent civilians.

Bodies moved?
Provincial authorities said al-Qaida sympathizers took the bodies of the foreign militants believed to have been killed to bury them in the mountains near the Afghan border, thereby preventing their identification.

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the bodies may have been taken by a local pro-Taliban cleric, Maulana Faqir Mohammed, who also is being hunted by authorities. Authorities believe he and another prominent pro-Taliban cleric survived the attack Friday.

Intelligence officials say al-Zawahri is thought to have sent some of his aides in his place to an Islamic holiday dinner to which he’d been invited in Damadola on the night of the attack.

Hours after the attack, an Associated Press reporter visited the village, which consists of a half-dozen widely scattered houses on a hillside about four miles from the Afghan border.

Residents said then that all the dead were local people and no one had taken any bodies away. However, it appeared feasible that bodies or wounded could have been taken away in the darkness after the attack, which took place at about 3 a.m.

Islamic custom dictates that bodies be buried as soon as possible, and the reporter saw 13 freshly filled graves with simple headstones and five empty graves alongside them — apparently prepared for more dead. When the reporter returned the next day, the five empty graves were filled in, apparently because no more bodies had been found in the rubble.

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Video: Master bomb maker killed?

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