LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. and Pakistani officials disagree sharply over claims that senior al Qaeda leader Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in a recent missile strike, suggesting strains persist between the often uneasy allies.
Intelligence officials in Pakistan said over the weekend that Kashmiri, a figure in both al Qaeda and a Pakistan-based affiliate, was killed by a missile fired from a U.S. drone aircraft in northwestern Pakistan.
Pakistani officials subsequently issued a series of statements about Kashmiri’s death.
“I can confirm 100 percent that he is dead,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters on Monday. “I got this information this morning.”
But U.S. officials familiar with counterterrorism activities in the region said they were unable to confirm Kashmiri’s death. It was more likely than not, they said on Monday evening, that the militant leader was still alive.
“It wouldn’t be the first time that reports of his death have been wrong,” one U.S. official told Reuters. “We’re simply unable at this time to confirm reports of Kashmiri’s demise. Our working assumption is that he’s still walking around.”
A second U.S. official said government experts believed it was more likely that Kashmiri was alive, although they are not ruling out the possibility he was killed in a drone strike.
The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
The conflicting assessments indicate relations between the United States and Pakistan — which hit a low point after the U.S. killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last month in Pakistan — remain deeply troubled despite claims by both countries that they were improving.
But Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, on Tuesday also urged caution about reports of Kashmiri’s death.
On the Twitter social network, using shorthand abbreviations, Haqqani said: “There R reasons 2 B cautious abt reports relating 2 death of terrorist mastermind Ilyas Kashmiri. We cnt afford 2 let down R guard.”
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, raised doubts about Kashmiri’s death, saying on ABC News on Monday: “I’m not sure that’s been confirmed.”
Kashmiri, labeled a “specially designated global terrorist” by the U.S. State Department, was wrongly reported to have been killed in a September 2009 drone strike.
It is difficult to confirm the identities of people killed in drone strikes because they occur in remote areas not accessible to foreign journalists.
A Pakistani television station quoted the group that Kashmiri headed, an al Qaeda affiliate called Harkat-ul Jihad Islami, confirming his death. Britain’s Channel 4 News said the death had been confirmed by a senior HUJI commander and close aide of Kashmiri.
But SITE Institute, a U.S.-based private group that monitors and translates messages posted on militant websites, on Monday cast doubt on an Internet photo said to be of Kashmiri’s body and an accompanying fax from HUJI confirming his death.
The U.S. group said it appeared to be the body of another militant, Abu Dera Ismail Khan, who was killed in the militant attacks on Mumbai, India, in November 2008.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan have suffered since last year, when the name of the CIA station chief in Pakistan was leaked to local media and the American official, who was supposed to be operating undercover, had to leave the country.
Relations worsened considerably after the arrest, and later release, of a CIA security contractor who killed two Pakistani nationals in what the United States said was an armed robbery attempt. Then, U.S. Navy SEALS killed bin Laden without giving advance notice to Pakistani authorities.
Kashmiri, said to be a former Pakistani military officer, was high on a list Washington gave Pakistan of militants it wanted captured or killed, a Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity.
He was indicted in a U.S. court in Chicago with American David Headley for allegedly plotting to attack a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Headley pleaded guilty over that plot and to scouting targets in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Pakistan and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan