Militant Libyan cleric Abu Yahya al-Libi, described as al-Qaeda's second in command, has been killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan, officials confirm.
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Pakistani intelligence sources and US officials have claimed that four missiles launched by a US drone killed up to 17 people in the north west of the country, including Abu Yahya al-Libi, number two to leader Ayman al Zawahri, the former Egyptian doctor who was said to have taken over al-Qaeda after Bin Laden's death.
The Libyan cleric is seen as a high-value target. The death is being described as the biggest blow to the core of al-Qaeda since US forces killed Osama bin Laden in a secret raid in Pakistan in May 2011. The US had previously put a $1m bounty on his head.
But the strike - the latest in a string of many such attacks - has continued to sour relations between Islamabad and Washington amid frequent reports of civilians being killed. On Monday, the Pakistani foreign ministry subsequently summoned the US embassy's charge d'affaires to register their anger following the weekend's attacks.
The last strike was the third in as many days; reports in Pakistan suggested nearly 30 people were killed during the attacks.
Drone strikes have been a highly controversial tactic increasingly favoured by the Obama administration. It claims to have killed a number of senior al-Qaeda operatives as a result of strikes, which are usually said to be directed by the CIA. Around 12 senior al-Qaeda leaders have been assassinated since bin Laden's death.
Analysis from Channel 4 News correspondent, Carl Dinnen:
Reports of his death have previously proved premature but there are indications that this time Washington may have got Abu Yahya al-Libi. He is thought to be second only to the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, in his influence.
A source has told me that the killing of these figures - if that's what has happened here - is seriously damaging to core Al Qaeda (Osama Bin Laden's organisation). As the top leadership are removed it is thought that those who step up to replace them will have less in the way of experience and credibility to lead their global jihad.
There is a feeling that al-Libi's removal would make the streets of Britain safer too. For although the main threat of an Al Qaeda attack comes from homegrown jihadists many of them still travel to Pakistan for the training and the blessing of Al Qaeda. Drone attacks are making it more difficult for them to move around and communicate.
But of course Al Qaeda's roots have now spread far from the seed planted by Bin Laden. The core Afghan/Pak version is no longer considered the most dangerous to the west. That mantle currently rests with the Yemen-centred Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula.
However, they have provoked widespread condemnation both within Pakistan and beyond, with critics pointing to the high numbers of civilians killed in the strikes alongside Taliban or other militants.
Research by US think tank, the New America Foundation, has suggested that of 302 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan from 2004 to the present, between 1,845 and 2,836 individuals have been killed. They say that around 1,552 to 2,365 were described as militants.
They say that 17 per cent of deaths have been of civilians; research by the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggests that 23 per cent of deaths have been non-militant.
The bureau has also carried out research that suggests that increasingly, CIA drones are increasingly beginning to attack rescuers.
In the latest strike, Pakistani intelligence officials said that they believe al-Libi may have been among seven foreign militants killed in Monday's strike.
One official said that Pakistani authorities had intercepted telephone chatter which indicated that al-Libi, an al-Qaeda theologian and expert on new media whose escape from a US-run prison in Afghanistan in 2005 brought further notoriety, had been killed.
The official said: "We intercepted some conversations between militants. They were talking about the death of a 'sheik'. They did not name this person, but we have checked with our sources in the area and believe they are referring to al-Libi."
But his death, which was later confirmed by US officials, was denied by militant commanders in North Waziristan, with the group insisting they remain as strong as ever. The commander pointed to previous reports in 2009 which suggested that he had been killed, and said: "He has not been killed. This is not the first time claims have been made about his death. The Americans are suffering heavy losses in Afghanistan so they have resorted to making false claims."
Identifying victims of drone strikes can take months because the area in which the attacks take place are often sealed off by the Taliban, and burials are carried out quickly in order to hide casualties and identities.
In recent months, claims have also emerged that the UK could be assisting the US to launch covert drone strikes. Lawyers working for human rights group, Reprieve, have mounted legal action claiming that civilian staff at GCHQ could be liable as "secondary parties to murder" for providing "locational intelligence" to the CIA's drone programme in Pakistan.
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