Pakistani Taliban deny Zawahri death report

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani Taliban spokesman denied on Saturday a U.S. media report that al Qaeda number two, Ayman al Zawahri, might have been killed or wounded in a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan’s border region last Monday.

Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri speaks in a grab from a video released September 20, 2007. REUTERS/via Internet

“Zawahri has been killed by them several times. But once again this claim is wrong. This is baseless,” Maulvi Omar told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The whereabouts of Zawahri and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden have not been known to their enemies since U.S.-led forces waged a campaign to hunt them down in Afghanistan following the al Qaeda attacks on the United States on September11, 2001.

Both are believed to hiding somewhere in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

CBS News based its report on a copy of an intercepted letter purportedly written by the leader of Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, requesting a doctor be sent to treat the wounded Zawahri.

The letter was written on Tuesday, a day after a U.S. missile strike killed an al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons expert, Abu Khabab al-Masri, along with five other people.

The letter mentioned Zawahri, who is Egyptian, by name and said he was in severe pain and his injuries were infected. Experts said Mehsud’s signature and seal appeared authentic, CBS said.

Related Coverage

The spokesman for Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, said Mehsud had not written any letter and Zawahri was nowhere near when the missile struck the house where al-Masri was staying in the South Wazirstan tribal region, bordering Afghanistan.

“Ayman al Zawahri was not present there. Ayman al Zawahri is neither present in Waziristan nor in Bajaur,” Omar said, referring to another Pakistani tribal region known as a sanctuary for al Qaeda militants.

A senior Pakistani intelligence officer also rejected suggestions that Zawahri was present when al-Masri was killed.

“It’s absurd,” he told Reuters, adding that the only notable casualty had been al-Masri.

He said al-Masri’s wife and children had been wounded in the missile strike and were taken for treatment to Wana, the main town in South Waziristan.

A Pakistani military spokesman said he had no information related to the CBS report.

CBS said U.S. authorities had said they did not have information whether Zawahri was present or had been wounded in the strike.

However, it cited a counter-intelligence expert and other U.S. officials as confirming that the United States was looking into reports that Zawahri might have been killed.

In January, 2006, CIA-operated drone Predator planes fired missiles at a house in Damadola, a village in Bajaur, in the belief that Zawahri was visiting. He was not but at least 18 villagers were killed.

In his last audio-tape, released on June 4, Zawahri urged Palestinians to step up suicide and rocket attacks on Israel.

Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Angus MacSwan