A high-ranking al-Qaida figure was killed Thursday in an attack by a drone aircraft in northwest Pakistan, U.S. officials told NBC News.
The officials did not identify who was killed, except to say that it was not al-Qaida’s supreme leader, Osama bin Laden. If the report is confirmed, it would be the first time coalition forces had killed a top al-Qaida figure in almost a year.
The officials said the killing was the result of stepped-up operations targeting al-Qaida leaders in recent weeks.
Pakistan officially denied that any such attack took place, disputing reports that at least four people were killed and four were injured in a U.S. Predator drone strike in the Ladha area of South Waziristan province. The discrepancy between the U.S. and Pakistani reports could not immediately be resolved.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed that the al-Qaida operative was high-ranking but did not identify him. The attack apparently took place in the past day or two.
The U.S. has long targeted men who held al-Qaida's No. 3 role as director of international operations. Five of them, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is facing trial in New York, have been killed or captured since 9/11. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are symbolic importance as al-Qaida's top two leaders, but the No. 3 man is viewed as the group's operational leader.
The last high-ranking al-Qaida official killed by the U.S. was Abu Laith al-Libi on Jan. 28, 2008, also by a Predator attack. Al-Libi was not in the top three but was blamed for a suicide bombing outside Bagram air base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Cheney in 2007.
The CIA-operated drones have already been increasingly used near the Afghan border. Nearly 50 drone air strikes in northwestern border regions this year have killed about 415 people, including many foreign militants, according to officials and residents.
But Pakistan opposes expanded U.S. drone attacks against militants on its tribal areas, as well as any strikes on Baluchistan, where Washington believes Afghan Taliban leaders are hiding, the foreign ministry said last week.
Missile strikes from pilotless drone aircraft have created fierce anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, a strategic ally Washington wants to crack down harder on Taliban fighters operating along the porous border with Afghanistan.
The White House has authorized the expansion of the CIA's drone program in Pakistan to complement President Barack Obama's plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed officials.
It said that for the first time, U.S. officials are talking with Islamabad about the possibility of hitting Baluchistan, where Pakistan is already facing a low-level insurgency from Baluch rebels seeking provincial autonomy.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said there were limits to Pakistani cooperation, and the drone attacks were counterproductive.
"This has never been part of our discussions. There are clear red-lines as far as we're concerned," he said when asked if there were any talks between Washington and Islamabad on expansion of drone attacks to Baluchistan.
"We have clearly conveyed our red-lines to them."
The drone strikes have been limited to Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal regions near the Afghan border, semi-autonomous lands believed to be sanctuaries for al-Qaida and the Taliban.
In outlining his Afghanistan strategy in a speech on Tuesday, Obama made a vague plea to Pakistan to fight the "cancer" of extremism and said the United States would not tolerate Pakistan allowing its territory to be a safe haven for militants.
The militant threat in Pakistan
U.S. lawmakers told Obama's top advisers Dec. 3 that the focus on sending additional troops to Afghanistan ignored the much larger threat of militants across the border in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Underscoring sensitivities of the drone issue, U.S. officials say strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to decry the attacks in public.
But it is not just a rise in drone attacks, but the widening of the war geographically that worries Pakistanis.
Some of the most prominent militants reported killed by drone attacks include senior al-Qaida member Abu Laith al-Libi and al-Qaida chemical and biological weapons expert Abu Khabab al-Masri.
A drone missile strike in August killed Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was responsible for many suicide bombings including one that killed Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, according to Pakistani officials.
NBC News investigative producer Robert Windrem contributed to this report, as did the Associated Press and Reuters.