REUTERS - A U.S. drone strike killed senior al Qaeda figure Ilyas Kashmiri in Pakistan after a tipoff from local intelligence, a Pakistani intelligence official said on Saturday.
The elimination of Kashmiri, regarded as one of the most dangerous militants in the world, appeared to be another coup for the United States after American special forces killed Osama bin Laden in a garrison town close to Islamabad on May 2.
Islamabad’s cooperation in the killing could help repair ties with Washington, badly damaged when it was discovered that bin Laden had apparently been living in Pakistan for years.
“We are sure that he (Kashmiri) has been killed. Now we are trying to retrieve the bodies. We want to get photographs of the bodies,” said the Pakistani intelligence official.
Kashmiri was wrongly reported to have been killed in a September 2009 strike by a U.S. drone.
A Pakistani television station quoted the group Kashmiri headed, Harkat-ul Jihad Islami (HUJI) which is allied to al Qaeda, as saying the latest report was true.
“We confirm that our Amir (leader) and commander in chief, Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, along with other companions, was martyred in an American drone strike on June 3, 2011, at 11:15 p.m.,” Abu Hanzla Kashir, who identified himself as a HUJI spokesman, said in a statement faxed to the station.
“God willing ... America will very soon see our full revenge. Our only target is America.”
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.
Kashmiri’s death is good news for Pakistan, which has failed to subdue militants seeking to topple its unpopular government despite a series of army offensives against their strongholds.
“It will be a very big blow to militants and Pakistan will be a major beneficiary because he was behind attacks on Pakistani defence and military installations,” said retired Brigadier Asad Munir, a former Pakistani intelligence officer.
Kashmiri, said to be a former Pakistani military officer, and other militants were with an Afghan Taliban member involved in liaison with the Pakistani Taliban when the drone missile struck, said the intelligence official.
He said they were in a house in South Waziristan, close to the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan, that was believed to be the headquarters of Kashmiri’s group, which has been described as an operational wing of al Qaeda.
“We were closing in on him and he switched off his satellite phone and cellphone and he wanted to cross the border to Afghanistan to find a hiding place,” the official added. “It was a tipoff by us since we were closely monitoring his movements.”
Five of his close allies were also killed in the attack by a pilotless drone aircraft, along with two other militants, intelligence officials said.
A U.S. embassy spokesman said he could not confirm the killing of Kashmiri or whether Pakistan provided support for an operation.
The killing of bin Laden aroused international suspicions that Pakistani authorities had been complicit in hiding him, and led to domestic criticism of them for failing to detect or stop the U.S. team that killed him.
Kashmiri was on a list which the United States gave Pakistan of senior militants it wanted killed or captured, said a Pakistani official.
Drone strikes have increased under the Obama administration, sometimes killing civilians and fuelling anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
While Pakistani leaders publicly criticise the attacks, analysts say killing high-value targets like Kashmiri would not be possible without Pakistani intelligence.
Washington reiterated its call on Pakistan, a major recipient of U.S. aid, to crack down harder on militancy after it was discovered that bin Laden had been living about a two-hour drive from intelligence headquarters.
The U.S. Department of State has labelled Kashmiri a “specially designated global terrorist”.
Last year, the U.S. attorney’s office quoted a Chicago taxi driver charged with sending money to Kashmiri as saying the Pakistani militant had told him he “wanted to train operatives to conduct attacks in the United States”.
Kashmiri battled Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s in Afghanistan, where he lost an eye. His group also fought Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region.
He has been linked to attacks including the 2008 rampage through the Indian city of Mumbai which killed 166 people.
“This will be a huge loss for al Qaeda,” said Kamran Bokhari of global intelligence firm STRATFOR. “Everyone will benefit, the United States, Pakistan and India.”
The Pakistani media has speculated that Kashmiri was the mastermind of an attack on the PNS Mehran naval base in Karachi last month which humiliated the Pakistani military.
In that operation, six militants held off 100 security forces, including commandos, for 16 hours.
(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Hafiz Wazir in South Waziristan, Faisal Aziz in Karachi and Myra MacDonald in London; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Andrew Roche)