ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A honicide bomber attacked a military checkpoint Friday in North Waziristan, killing five government soldiers about two miles from the scene of a U.S. missile attack that had killed a top Al Qaeda commander, officials said.
Eight other soldiers were wounded in Friday's attack, a military spokesman said. The suicide bombing broke a unilateral cease-fire declared by militants in the area a couple of months ago.
It was unclear whether the attack was in retaliation for the missile strike against Abu Laith al-Libi, whose death was reported Thursday on Islamic extremist Web sites and confirmed by an American official.
The official said the veteran al-Qaida leader died when a missile from a U.S. Predator drone struck a compound in Pakistan's North Waziristan region late Monday.
The U.S. missile strike marked a significant victory for the U.S. in its battle against the terror network after a series of pessimistic assessments of the American-led campaign against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
A Pakistan government spokesman in Islamabad said he had no information to prove al-Libi was killed in the strike, which occurred near the town of Mir Ali. But Pakistani intelligence officials in Miran Shah, a main town in North Waziristan, said there were strong indications he died.
"Our sources among militants ... are telling us that al-Libi died in the U.S. missile attack" along with about a dozen others, said a security official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. A second intelligence official confirmed that account.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials said the missile was fired while al-Libi or some of his associates were using satellite phones and a computer at the house of Abdul Sattar, a local tribal leader known for his links to extremists.
Another official said in Islamabad that Sattar's home was only two kilometers (one mile) from a base used by Pakistani security forces. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because their information was sensitive.
The Predator is an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that has been armed by both the U.S. Air Force and CIA with Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Even though all signs point to the CIA, agency officials would not confirm that their aircraft were involved in the strike.
Terrorism experts said al-Libi's death was a significant setback for Al Qaeda because of his extensive ties to the Taliban, but they said the terror network would likely regroup and replace him.
The U.S. says al-Libi — whose name means "the Libyan" in Arabic — was likely behind a February 2007 bombing at the U.S. base at Bagram in Afghanistan during a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. The attack killed 23 people but Cheney was deep inside the sprawling base and was not hurt.
Al-Libi's death was reported at a time of growing pessimism over the U.S.-led campaign against the resurgent Taliban across the border in Afghanistan.
An independent study co-chaired by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones and former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering warned this week that Afghanistan risks becoming a failed state because of deteriorating international support and the growing Taliban insurgency.
The study concluded the United States risks losing the "forgotten war" in Afghanistan unless it re-energize anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As a sign of the security challenge in the border area, two Pakistani soldiers were killed and two others wounded Friday when a bomb exploded near their convoy in Wana in South Waziristan, said an intelligence officer. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.
Among those who died in the missile strike were Arabs, Turkmen from central Asia and local Taliban members, according to an intelligence official in the area who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the bodies of those killed were badly mangled by the force of the explosion and it was difficult to identify them.
In the past, coalition forces in Afghanistan are believed to have launched a number of similar missile strikes against Taliban and al-Qaida militants hiding on the Pakistani side of the border, but the U.S. military has never confirmed any of them.
"We have no official information on this. Coalition forces do not conduct operations in Pakistan," Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan, said Friday.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly said he would not permit U.S. military action against al-Qaida members believed to be regrouping in the wild borderlands near Afghanistan. Musharraf has downplayed U.S. concerns about a significant al-Qaida presence inside Pakistan.
Pakistani media did not report the missile strike prominently. Most newspapers published international agency reports either on inside pages or at the bottom of their fronts.
A former senior Pakistani intelligence officer familiar with the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said al-Libi was among the top five al-Qaida leaders with longtime contacts in North Waziristan.
Al-Libi was among the most high-profile figures in al-Qaida after its leader, Osama bin Laden, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
"Al-Libi has been waging jihad for more than 10 years and it will be a blow to both al-Qaida and the Taliban, but not in a way that will lead to the downfall of those organizations," said Eric Rosenbach, terror expert and executive director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.