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Al Qaida leader reportedly killed as Pakistan's clashes escalate

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A leading al Qaida commander, reputed to be number three in the terrorist group, is thought to have been killed after several days of fierce fighting in Pakistan's northwest fringe, a clash that's pushing the country toward war with the extremists.

Abu Saeed al Masri, identified in local news reports as Mustafa Abu al Yazid, is al Qaida's commander in Afghanistan as well its financial expert. His death, if confirmed, would be a significant blow to the terrorist group.

Pakistan's Taliban movement, which is allied with al Qaida, on Tuesday blew up a bus that was carrying military personnel just outside Peshawar, the capital of the troubled North West Frontier Province. The powerful blast, thought to come from a roadside bomb, claimed 14 lives, including civilian passers-by. It blew a crater in the road some 10 feet wide.

Pakistan's tribal territory, which borders Afghanistan and large tracts of its North West Frontier Province, is convulsed in violence, as the country's security forces have decided to take on militant bases in some parts of the area.

Fighting in Bajaur, part of the tribal zone, resulted in the death of Yazid, according to local news reports. Pakistani security officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to speak to the press, said they believed that he'd been killed but that they hadn't seen the body. U.S. officials in Washington weren't immediately able to verify the death.

Abu Khabab al Masri, an al Qaida chemical and biological-weapons expert, was killed last month in a U.S. airstrike in South Waziristan, another part of Pakistan's tribal territory. The presence of Yazid and him in Pakistan will fuel claims that not only is the Taliban insurrection in Afghanistan being directed from Pakistani territory but also that al Qaida is using the country as a worldwide base.

Yazid is a founding member of al Qaida and has been a trusted lieutenant of Osama bin Laden since the late 1980s. He's claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad earlier this year. He's also been linked to the assassination in December of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Yazid, an Egyptian, served time in jail with al Qaida deputy leader Ayman al Zawahri after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

Some consider Yazid al Qaida's third most senior figure. He's risen through the ranks as other leaders have been killed. The Sept. 11 commission described Yazid as the network's "chief financial manager," and he may have wired money to the 9-11 hijackers.

He recently gave a rare interview to the Pakistani news channel Geo, in which he said that "all Americans are our enemy now, not just the American government."

Analysts said that Pakistan's northwest is on the verge of catching fire, even as attention in Islamabad is fixed on a political drama: the impeachment of President Pervez Musharraf. The violence has left the government's stated policy of negotiating with militants in severe doubt.

"Peace is not working. These militants are not interested in peace," said Mahmood Shah, who formerly was the top official in charge of the tribal area. "There are now serious military operations going."

Over the last week, violence has erupted in two tribal areas, the Bajaur and Kurram agencies, which lie along the Afghan border, and in the valley of Swat, which is in the North West Frontier Province. The Taliban, taking responsibility for the bus explosion in Peshawar, said it was in retaliation for the army onslaught.

"It is an open war between us and them," Pakistani Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar said. "If these kinds of operations continue against us in Swat and in the tribal areas, we will continue this."

Bajaur, a hotbed of militancy, is reckoned to be a possible hiding place for bin Laden and Zawahri. Local Taliban have established their own Islamic court there and staged public executions.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, said that a week of intense fighting in Bajaur, including bombardment from attack helicopters and artillery, had killed some 160 militants. Nine troops are known dead and 15 are missing. Abbas said that the government's policy of using force only when necessary remained in place.

"Wherever the ground situation dictates, there are operations," he said. "We are mindful that this does not turn into all-out war."

In Swat, which formerly was a tourist destination, militants have staged a violent comeback after signing a peace deal in May. Over the last few months, they've blown up 135 schools for girls in the valley, believing that educating girls is against the teachings of Islam. In Kurram, where the fighting is intertribal and sectarian, 83 people have died in the last six days.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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