Uzbek militant killed in Pakistan: security agents

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Fri Oct 2, 2009 6:43am EDT

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-linked Uzbek militant leader was killed in Pakistan in a U.S. drone missile strike in August, Pakistani intelligence agency officials said on Friday.

Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was killed in a missile strike in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, where he had been based for some years, they said.

Yuldashev's death will be welcomed by governments in central Asia, where he wanted to set up an Islamic state.

His death will also be a blow to his Pakistani Taliban allies as the army prepares to launch an offensive against them in their South Waziristan bastion.

"The man is dead. He was killed in a drone attack in South Waziristan on August 27," said one Pakistani intelligence agency official in the city of Peshawar, confirming a report in The Dawn newspaper.

Another Pakistani security official said Yuldashev's colleagues had tried to keep his death secret although there had been speculation over recent days about his fate.

Pakistan's military spokesman was not available for comment.

A close ally of both the Taliban and al Qaeda, Yuldashev, who was believed to have been in his early 40s, was a leader in an Islamist militant underground opposed to the communist government in Uzbekistan before and after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

He later fled to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and fought on the Taliban side in Afghanistan's civil war. He moved to Waziristan after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

Yuldashev shot to prominence in March 2004, when Pakistani forces surrounded his base in South Waziristan, but he escaped while his fighters mounted a fierce defense.

No one knows how many Uzbek militants are based in northwest Pakistan but there are believed to be up to 1,000. The army said in June it had unconfirmed reports Yuldashev had been wounded in a Pakistani military air strike in South Waziristan.

"STRONG LEADER"

Yuldashev's death came weeks after Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a similar attack by a missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft.

Yuldashev's tough fighters often gave his allies a decisive advantage in clashes and his death would be a blow to Mehsud's followers, analysts said.

The government ordered the army to launch an offensive against Mehsud and his men in South Waziristan in June.

The security forces have limited their action to air strikes and occasional shelling, while moving in troops, blockading the region and trying to split off factions.

"If you lose the top leader there are serious problems with the organization, especially if he's a strong leader," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist and expert on the Afghan border.

"That could be one result, some disarray in the ranks," Yusufzai said. "This is going to help the Pakistani government in the long-term."

Though Yuldashev's death would be a blow to the Pakistani Taliban, it should not be overstated, said another analyst.

"It will help the security forces but it does not mean it will bring about a huge change in the power structure of the militant organization or their capacity to strike," said Khadim Hussain of the Aryana Institute think-tank.

Yuldashev was accused of a series of bomb attacks in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in 1999 and was sentenced to death in absentia. By that time he was thought to have fled the region for the haven of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony and Robert Birsel; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Jerry Norton and Sanjeev Miglani)

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