A CIA drone has killed al-Qaida operative Haitham al-Yemeni in the remote northwest part of Pakistan where other members of the militant group are believed to be hiding, NBC News has confirmed.
Pakistani officials, however, denied the incident.
“Nothing has happened in Pakistan. If something happened in Afghanistan, we don’t know,” Information Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed told Reuters.
A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan said he had no information about the veracity of the reports. The CIA said Friday it would not confirm, deny or comment in any way on the operation.
Video: Drones common tool on battlefield According to U.S. officials and Pakistani sources, a Hellfire missile fired from a predator drone struck a car driven by a local warlord, Samiullah Khan, killing both him and his passenger, al-Yemeni. At the time, local Pakistani officials said a "car bomb" had killed the two, but witnesses told NBC News that the deaths were not caused by a car bomb but by a missile strike. A U.S. official confirmed that the attack on al Yemeni took place on Sunday at 2 a.m. near the town of Mirali.
Information leading to the strike is thought to be connected to the recent capture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, described as al-Qaida's No. 3, in northwest Pakistan on May 2, NBC News reported.
"The debate was over whether to hit him individually or wait until he was part of a bigger group," NBC analyst Roger Cressey reported. There was no clarification if the actual strike was against just al-Yemeni or targeted a gathering of suspected militants.
Sources told NBC News that the CIA has all the approvals necessary within its counterterror center in Langley, Va., to fire missiles within Pakistan when an al-Qaida target is spotted. The agency does not have to check with the White House or with Pakistani authorities or the CIA director. The purpose is to expedite rapid action in the field in case the opportunity is time sensitive.
Several times in recent months, Predators have been used to fire at suspected militant targets, including sites described as training camps inside Pakistan territory.
Six suspected extremists, including Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a close associate of bin Laden, were killed in Yemen in November 2002. Officials said that on two other occasions the Predator has been used to attack people mistakenly thought to be bin Laden.
Pakistani army troops have been hunting al-Qaida militants in the lawless tribal region bordering Afghanistan since late 2003, but the government prohibits foreign forces operating in its territory.
Pakistani security forces have killed and arrested hundreds of al-Qaida militants and handed many of them over to the United States over the past three years.
NBC's Robert Windrem, Andrea Mitchell and Carol Grisanti, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.