A British citizen linked to a plot to blow up jetliners flying across the Atlantic was believed killed Saturday by an apparent U.S. missile attack on an al-Qaida redoubt near the Afghan border, Pakistani officials said.
If confirmed, the death of Rashid Rauf would bolster U.S. claims that missile strikes on extremist strongholds in northwestern Pakistan are protecting the West against another Sept. 11-style terrorist attack.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official told NBC News that Rauf and a Saudi militant called Abu Zubair al-Masri were the targets of the strike in North Waziristan.
"These guys are no longer with us," the official said.
This was the second major success in the last month, the official told NBC News, noting that a U.S. predator also killed Khalid Habib, al-Qaida's alleged director of external operations. Habib was allegedly responsible for recruiting operatives for attacks inside the U.S.
A Taliban spokesman disputed the claims that Rauf was killed, insisting only civilians were killed in the pre-dawn missile attack in the village of Ali Khel, which lies in an area long reputed as a militant stronghold.
"None was a foreigner," Ahmedullah Ahmedi said in a statement delivered to reporters in Miran Shah, the region's main town.
However, three Pakistani intelligence officials, citing reports from field agents as well as intercepted militant communications, said they believed Rauf and al-Masri were among five killed.
Militants have cordoned off the area and one of the intelligence officials cautioned that government spies in the area had not seen any of the bodies. The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter to news media.
After the strike, Pakistan Information Minister Sherry Rehman reiterated the government's complaint that missile attacks, apparently launched from unmanned aircraft, are fanning anti-Americanism and Islamic extremism tearing at both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"It would have been better if our authorities had been alerted for local action," Rehman told The Associated Press. "Drone incursions create a strong backlash."
North Waziristan, one of the tribal areas where Taliban fighters stage attacks across the border into Afghanistan, lies in the rugged frontier region where al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden may be hiding.
Rauf, who is of Pakistani origin, has been on the run since last December, when he escaped from police escorting him back to jail after an extradition hearing in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.
Britain was seeking his extradition ostensibly as a suspect in the 2002 killing of his uncle there, but Rauf had allegedly been in contact with a group in Britain planning to smuggle liquid explosives onto trans-Atlantic flights and also with a suspected al-Qaida mastermind of the plot in Afghanistan.
The plot's revelation in August 2006 prompted a major security alert at airports worldwide and increased restrictions on carryon items.
A London jury convicted three men in the case in September, though several others were acquitted. British investigators lamented that Rauf's arrest by Pakistani authorities in August 2006 had forced them to sweep up the plot suspects before they had finished gathering strong evidence.
U.S. forces based in Afghanistan are suspected of having carried out about 20 missile attacks in northwestern Pakistan since August, reflecting American impatience at Islamabad's efforts to curb militants on its own soil.
Only six missile strikes were reported in Pakistan in the first seven months of the year, according to an AP tally.
American authorities rarely confirm or deny individual attacks. Still, senior U.S. officials have defended the tactic and said it has eliminated several top al-Qaida operatives in recent months.
The strikes have continued despite Pakistani complaints that they kill mostly civilians and risk triggering an insurrection among the fiercely independent tribes along the border.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has urged Washington to share intelligence and equip his country's troops so they can pursue militants on their side of the border.
Extremists threaten revenge
Despite the tough public criticism of the missile attacks, Zardari has made clear that Pakistan, which depends heavily on U.S. aid, will not break off anti-terror cooperation. He has expressed hope that Obama will soften U.S. policy after becoming president.
Pakistani extremists threatened revenge attacks after a missile strike Wednesday near the northwestern town of Bannu.
Shortly after Saturday's strike, police said militants attacked a checkpoint in Bannu with rockets and gunfire, killing three officers.
Fighting and explosions elsewhere in Pakistan and Afghanistan on Saturday reportedly killed a total of 19 people, including five women who died when Pakistani jets bombed militants in the Bajur region. A French soldier was killed by a land mine near Kabul, but it was unclear if the weapon was planted recently or was a leftover of Afghanistan's earlier wars.