Pakistani forces killed a renegade tribal leader allied with suspected al-Qaida militants in a helicopter assault on a mud-brick fortress near the Afghan border, the army spokesman said Friday.
Nek Mohammed was tracked down by tracing an intercepted satellite phone call, a senior security official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. Six others were killed with Mohammed in the missile strike late Thursday.
Mohammed, a former Taliban fighter, led fierce resistance to the army’s offensive to flush out foreign militants from the rugged tribal belt near the Afghan border where al-Qaida is believed to be active.
“We were tracking him down and he was killed last night by our hand,” Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told The Associated Press in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
The helicopter fired a missile at Mohammed’s hideout near Wana, the main town in South Waziristan.
The British Broadcasting Corp. has conducted at least two phone interviews with Mohammed in the past week, though it was not clear whether either of those calls was used to track him down.
In one of the interviews, Mohammed acknowledged foreigners were living in the tribal areas, but denied that they were terrorists.
“Those foreigners who are living here are not terrorists — rather they are mujahedeen (holy warriors) who took part in the Afghan jihad,” he said, a reference to the U.S.-backed war in the 1980s to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
Sultan would not confirm whether Mohammed was traced through a satellite phone call.
U.S. involvement unclear
It was not clear if the United States was involved in the effort to track Mohammed. Pakistan is thought to lack the sophisticated satellite technology necessary for such phone intercepts and acknowledges that it sometimes receives “technical help” from the Americans.
Mohammed’s death was a major victory for the Pakistani army, which has been embarrassed by heavy losses in fighting with the militants, who are thought to enjoy protection from some tribes along the border.
The United States military, pursuing al-Qaida on the Afghan side of the border, has been pressing hard for Islamabad to step up military activity in Waziristan. The area is considered a possible hideout for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, though there is no hard intelligence on his whereabouts.
“We are confident that this killing of Nek Mohammed will help the ongoing operation in South Waziristan, and counter the threat of terrorism in other parts of the country,” Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat told lawmakers on Friday.
About 70 foreign militants have been killed in South Waziristan since June 9, when the army launched the latest offensive against them, he said, adding that the operation will continue until the last terror suspect is killed. Seventeen soldiers have also died.
Mohammed’s men are responsible for several deadly ambushes against the army and led a group of heavily armed holdouts during a March standoff that left more than 120 people dead.
He later agreed to cooperate with authorities, but reneged on promises to turn over foreign fighters, prompting the latest round of hostilities.
Tribal leader long time target
Mohammed apparently was staying in the home of another tribal leader, Sher Zaman, when the army helicopters attacked late Thursday. Residents said two of Zaman’s grown-up sons, his grandson and an associate of Mohammed also were killed.
The security official said two of those killed in the attack in the town of Pir Bagh were foreigners, but their identities were not known. They did not appear to be senior al-Qaida leaders.
Sultan said Pakistani forces were the ones who killed Mohammed. He said local reports that an unmanned U.S. aircraft may have fired the missile were “absurd.”
Mohammed’s body was taken to his village of Kaloosha, about six miles west of Wana, where thousands of people attended his funeral on Friday.
In the March assault, Pakistani troops were surprised on the first day, suffering heavy casualties and allowing hundreds of suspects to flee.
Government officials had said they believed a high-ranking al-Qaida operative — possibly bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahri — was surrounded in the March attack, but no senior leaders were found. An Uzbek militant, Tahir Yuldash, reportedly was wounded in the assault, but he got away.
Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, has launched several operations in South Waziristan in the past year to flush out suspected al-Qaida militants. Hundreds of foreign fighters — including Arabs, Central Asians and Afghans, are still believed to be hiding there.