ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - One of Osama bin Laden’s sons was probably killed by a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan earlier this year, U.S. National Public Radio reported, citing U.S. intelligence sources.
A U.S. counter-intelligence official said it was “80 to 85 percent” certain that Sa’ad bin Laden, who was in his twenties, had been killed.
The official said the son of the al Qaeda leader was not a major figure and would not have been important enough to target but “was in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
It was unknown whether Sa’ad was anywhere near his father when he died, NPR said. A U.S. intelligence official said in January that Sa’ad had been freed from custody in Iran and had probably gone to Pakistan.
“There have been reports (of his death), but none of them has been confirmed or verified,” a senior Pakistani security official told Reuters.
The United States believes Osama bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan. Intelligence agencies have had near misses tracking his deputy Ayman al Zawahri in Pakistan, but the hunt for bin Laden went cold several years ago.
While al Qaeda often releases audiotaped messages from bin Laden, the last videotape was released was two years ago, and there is constant speculation that he might have died.
A spokesman for the Taliban in the Swat valley, where the Pakistani army launched an offensive three months ago, phoned Reuters to deny a report by the military that it had probably wounded Taliban commander Fazlullah in an air strike.
“All of the Taliban leadership is okay,” spokesman Muslim Khan said before playing what he said was an audio recording of Fazlullah made on Wednesday.
“Pakistani rulers and generals have carried out suppression on Pashtuns and the people of Malakand division (of North West Frontier Province) to please the United States,” the voice in the recording said.
U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke told journalists in Islamabad the Pakistan army’s priority was to secure the Swat and Buner valleys, to make them safe for some 2.5 million people to go home.
The United Nations said almost 400,000 people had returned, which Holbrooke said was “good news”, before cautioning that they needed security.
“Northern Swat is still insecure and the leadership, like Fazlullah, has not been captured, so there’s a long way to go,” he said after two days of meetings with Pakistani leaders.
Holbrooke said this was the likely reason the army was delaying an all-out assault further west against the stronghold of Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud in the remote South Waziristan tribal region.
The United States has put a $5 million bounty on Mehsud, who is blamed for the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
“I think Baitullah Mehsud is one of the most dangerous and odious people in the region and the United States had paid insufficient attention to him until recently,” he said.
Pakistan has moved forces to Baluchistan to patrol the southwest province’s border with Helmand, the southern Afghan province where U.S. forces began an operation against the Taliban earlier this month. (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Jason Subler; editing by Andrew Roche)