A high-ranking member of the al-Qaida terrorist network was killed in an airstrike on a remote village in western Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News on Thursday.
Mohsin Musa Matawalli Atwah was among as many as 14 suspected militants who were killed in the attack in the North Waziristan tribal region village of Naghar Kalai, near the Afghan border, the officials told NBC News.
Pakistani intelligence officials said an army helicopter gunship struck the village, but local villagers, speaking to NBC News, claimed a Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile was responsible for the attack.
The Egyptian-born Atwah was one of al-Qaida’s top bombmakers, intelligence officials said. The United States had offered a $5 million reward for the capture of Atwah, who has been accused of training the bombers who attacked U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on Aug. 7, 1998.
"He is a significant player, an explosives expert, a bomb maker," one U.S. intelligence official told NBC.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC they had no comment on the claim that a Predator was responsible for the strike. They directed all questions to Pakistani officials, who deny the villagers' claim.
At least two children were among those killed in the raid, Pakistani security officials told The Associated Press. The bodies of the militants were buried quickly, the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
The two Pakistani security officials, based in the capital, Islamabad, told the AP that Wednesday’s operation targeted Atwah and another al-Qaida militant, identified as Abdul Rahman al-Masri, another bomb-making expert.
But a third official, who also declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The AP that it was likely that Abdul Rahman was one of the aliases used by Atwah. The FBI Web site also says one of Atwah’s aliases is Abdul Rahman.
An intelligence official in Miran Shah, a town on the Afghan border in North Waziristan, told The AP that the raid targeted a house where a group of militants were being sheltered by a local tribesman.
U.S. and Egyptian diplomats in Islamabad could not confirm if Atwah was targeted in the attack.
General: ‘The target was knocked out’
Residents in Naghar Kalai said they heard at least one loud explosion followed by intense machine-gun fire focussing on a house in which a group of men from “outside the village” had been staying.
The building, situated near an Islamic school, was destroyed, and three cars were blown up.
“There was a huge explosion, which we think was a missile attack, before the helicopters came and bombed the house,” said village tribal elder Khan Wazir. “When we came to the house there was dust and other people who were already trying to pull out bodies and sift through the rubble.”
After the attack, a group of armed men surrounded the crumpled house to keep onlookers back before taking at least seven bodies away, Wazir said.
“We had information about the presence of foreign militants,” said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the top Pakistan army spokesman. “It was a sting operation and the target was knocked out.”
Pakistani forces have been hunting remnants of al-Qaida and Afghanistan’s toppled Taliban government in the North and South Waziristan tribal regions that border Afghanistan.
Pakistani security officials have said Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri and other top al-Qaida figures could be hiding along the mountainous, porous Pakistan-Afghan border region.
Authorities here have arrested more than 750 al-Qaida suspects, including senior leaders of the terror network, since joining the U.S.-led war on terror launched following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.