KABUL, Afghanistan – A NATO airstrike killed a senior al-Qaida commander in eastern Afghanistan, officials said Wednesday, as Pakistan investigated reports that a separate CIA drone-launched missile killed the insurgents' No. 3 commander.
The attacks could be a serious blow to the terrorist network's capabilities in the region, and come as the U.S. has escalated strikes by unmanned drones in Pakistan's volatile border region in an effort to disrupt suspected terror plots in Europe, a Western counterterrorism official said in Washington.
It wasn't known whether the drone attacks were related specifically to a terror plot against Britain, France and Germany that European authorities said they intercepted. The Eiffel Tower was briefly evacuated Tuesday evening after officials received a telephoned bomb threat.
NATO said the airstrike in eastern Afghanistan killed several militants, including Abdallah Umar al-Qurayshi, a senior al-Qaida commander of Saudi origin who coordinated attacks by Arab fighters in Kunar and Nuristan provinces near the Pakistani border. NATO said an air weapons team went in after the strike and confirmed that the targeted structure was destroyed.
Pakistani security officials, meanwhile, said they were investigating reports that a missile strike from a CIA drone killed Sheikh Fateh al-Masri as he traveled in a tribal region near the border. Al-Masri is believed to have replaced Mustafa al-Yazid, who was killed in a missile strike in May, as the group's No. 3 commander.
The United States is believed to have launched 21 drone attacks into northwestern Pakistan this month, more than double the number in any previous month.
The Western counterterrorism official said some of the strikes were aimed at disrupting suspected terrorist plots aimed at Europe. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the terror plot remain sensitive.
Islamabad usually stays silent about U.S. drone strikes in the northwest, but the issue has become more heated since a manned NATO aircraft recently launched a strike in Pakistan against militants who had fled across the border from Afghanistan.
Pakistani security officials said Islamabad has told NATO leaders it will stop protecting the alliance's supply lines to Afghanistan if foreign aircraft stage further cross-border attacks against fleeing militants.
The threat was seen as mostly aimed at tamping down criticism inside Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment runs high and where conspiracy theories that the U.S. Army is poised to invade the nation from bases in Afghanistan are rampant.
But it was also a sign of Pakistani unease at the NATO attacks on Saturday and Monday that killed more than 70 militants, and a reminder of the leverage the country has in its complicated alliance with Washington.
Separately, NATO said two coalition service members were killed — one by a homemade bomb on Wednesday and another in an insurgent attack on Tuesday. NATO does not disclose the nationalities of troops killed until after their families have been contacted.
Both were killed in southern Afghanistan where the coalition is currently conducting operation "Dragon Strike" to flush out militants in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar province, but the coalition would not say whether their deaths were part of the ongoing operation.
"There is tough fighting, but this is to be expected in any situation where you are pushing insurgents out of their strongholds," NATO said in a written response to an AP query. "Dragon Strike is intended to drive a wedge between the insurgency and Afghans. ... We expect hard fighting as we continue these clearing operations."
This year is already the deadliest of the nine-year war, with 537 U.S. and NATO service members killed as of Wednesday. There are about 140,000 international forces in Afghanistan.
Southern Afghanistan remains highly volatile. Operation Dragon Strike has so far flushed militants out of Arghandab district, Afghan army Lt. Col. Nabeullah Khan said. It has also cleared the area of mines, a major concern for residents, he said.
NATO said Wednesday that it had detained several insurgents suspected of making bombs, and was searching for a Taliban leader believed to have led attacks on coalition forces in the area.
Associated Press writers Adam Goldman in Washington, Paisley Dodds in London and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.