Senior Qaeda leader in Afghanistan killed: NATO

KABUL Tue Apr 26, 2011 4:34am EDT

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KABUL (Reuters) - NATO-led forces in Afghanistan said on Tuesday they had killed a senior al Qaeda leader and the second most wanted insurgent in the country in an airstrike in eastern Kunar province, bordering Pakistan, ending a near four-year manhunt.

Abu Hafs al-Najdi, also known as Abdul Ghani, a Saudi Arabian, was killed 12 days ago in Dangam district, on April 13, as he met other senior insurgents and al Qaeda members, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) statement said.

"Abdul Ghani was responsible for the coordination of numerous high-profile attacks. On the morning of his death, he reportedly directed the suicide attack that killed tribal elder Malik Zarin and nine other Afghan civilians," ISAF said.

Abu Hafs al-Najdi was al Qaeda's operations chief for Kunar and was responsible for establishing insurgent camps and training sites throughout the volatile mountain province.

ISAF said he was one of more than 25 al Qaeda operatives killed in Afghanistan during operations over the past month in the leadup to Afghanistan's summer fighting months.

News of his death came a day after hundreds of insurgents tunneled their way out of a high-security jail in southern Kandahar, triggering an extensive manhunt and tightening of security along the Pakistan border.

Najdi, whose real name was Saleh Naiv Almakhlvi Day, controlled and armed a network of insurgents that targeted Afghan and ISAF security force outposts throughout Kunar, including two in February, ISAF said.

He was also No.23 on Saudi Arabia's list of 85 most wanted militants issued in 2009, which said he was active in either Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran. ISAF began hunting him in Afghanistan in 2007.

ISAF said Najdi was with a Pakistani Qaeda operative named Waqas when the airstrike took place, killing both, as well as an unspecified number of other insurgents.

"Abdul Ghani commonly instructed subordinate leaders to conduct kidnapping operations against foreigners ... and he was responsible for directing suicide bomb attacks targeting U.S. government officials," ISAF said.

Insurgents in the country are under stepped up pressure from NATO-led troops and a growing Afghan army ahead of the start this summer of a transfer of security responsibilities from foreign to Afghan forces.

An ISAF spokesman would not name the coalition's top insurgent target for fear of hampering their search, but alliance commanders have previously claimed there are only 50 to 100 Qaeda fighters still active in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korengal and Pech river valleys in Kunar in late 2009 has created more space for al Qaeda and the Taliban to expand their operations in the region, security website The Long War Journal said.

(Editing by Andrew Marshall)

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