Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Intel: Missile kills Filipino militant in Pakistan

By ISHTIAQ MAHSHUD, Associated Press Writer Ishtiaq Mahshud, Associated Press Writer

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – A Filipino militant wanted by the United States is believed to have been killed in an American drone strike close to the Afghan border earlier this month, Pakistani intelligence officials said Thursday.

If confirmed, the death of Abdul Basit Usman would represent another success for the U.S. covert missile program on targets in Pakistan. There have been an unprecedented number of attacks this month following a deadly Dec. 30 militant attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan.

Two military intelligence officers in northwestern Pakistan said Usman was believed killed on Jan. 14 on the border of Pakistan's South and North Waziristan tribal regions. Another 11 militants were also killed in the strike on a militant compound. Authorities have previously said the attack had targeted the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud.

There had been no previous indication Usman was in Pakistan. If the reports of his death in Pakistan are true, it may indicate stronger ties between al-Qaida and Southeast Asian terrorist groups than previously thought.

The U.S. State Department's list of most-wanted terrorists identifies Usman as a bomb-making expert with links to the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf militant group and the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah network. It puts a bounty of U.S. $1 million for information leading to his conviction, and says he is believed responsible for bombings in the southern Philippines in 2006 and 2007 that killed 15 people.

Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan's border region have long been home to militants from all over the world, primarily Arabs and central Asians. Up to several hundred Filipino and other Southeast Asian militants traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s and '90s to fight the Soviets and attend al-Qaida run camps, but they are no longer believed to be in the region in significant numbers.

The apparent presence of Usman in Waziristan may raise fresh questions as to links between al-Qaida in Pakistan and militants in Southeast Asia, which has seen several bloody bombings and failed extremist plots since 2000. Many were carried out by militants who had returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Pakistani officials cited militant informers as the source of the information on Usman's death — which could not be independently confirmed. One of them said Usman had been in Waziristan for one year after arriving from Afghanistan. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the record.

In the Philippines, two senior intelligence officials said they were unaware of any report regarding Usman's death. A U.S. military official based in the southern Philippines, the stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, said he also had not received any report. They too spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pakistani government officials, who rarely confirm the identities of those killed in U.S. attacks, were not available for comment late Thursday. Islamabad publicly complains about the missile strikes because admitting to cooperating with the United States would be politically damaging, but it is believed to provide intelligence for many of them.

U.S. officials, also, do not often talk about the missile strikes or their targets, but they have in the past confirmed the deaths of several mid- and high-level al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

Most of the missiles are fired from unmanned drone aircraft launched from Afghanistan.

Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked about the drone program during an interview with local Express TV.

"I'm not going to discuss operations but I will say this: These unmanned aerial vehicles have been extremely useful to us, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan," he said.

Gates said he is expanding the program by buying more of the aircraft. He also said the United States was considering ways to share intelligence with the Pakistani military, including possibly giving it U.S.-made drones for intelligence and reconnaissance purposes.

U.S. officials said Gates was referring to a proposed deal for 12 unarmed Shadow aircraft. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military cooperation.


Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in the Philippines and Chris Brummitt and Anne Gearan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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