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Questions Surround al-Qaida Leader's Death


Days after his reported death, there are more questions than answers surrounding alleged al-Qaida leader Abu Hamza Rabia. There is growing debate regarding Mr. Rabia's position inside al-Qaida, how he died and who may have killed him.

Hamza Abu Rabia was reportedly killed last week in an explosion at a house in the North Waziristan tribal region, an area where Pakistan says scores of al-Qaida militants are hiding.

But since the story broke last Friday, a series of questions have dogged the official investigation into his death.

First, just how senior an al-Qaida leader was he? Before he died, Mr. Rabia had a fairly low profile. The FBI left him off their list of the 15 most wanted terrorists and Mr. Rabia was rarely mentioned as one of the group's top commanders.

But senior Pakistani officials say he was on a secret CIA watch list and carried a $5 million bounty for his capture. Following the reports that he died last week, both U.S. and Pakistani authorities are describing him as al-Qaida's head of operations, an undisputed leader inside the terrorist network.

"He was one of the top-most operation commanders in this region and he was directing the operations here," said Brigadier Javid Iqbal Cheema, the head of Pakistan's Crisis Management Center.

A second question is how Mr. Rabia died. The government says the Egyptian-born militant died when bomb-making materials in his hideout near the Afghan border accidentally went off.

"Our information is they were working with explosives inside the house and an explosion took place that killed Rabia," he said.

But local residents say they believe the U.S. military is behind the explosion. Witnesses say they saw an unmanned aircraft fire on the mud house and have produced missile fragments that bear markings identifying them as American.

The United States has not addressed its role in the incident or even confirmed Mr. Rabia's death.

Adding to the controversy, unknown gunmen have kidnapped a local reporter investigating the case. Hayatullah Khan was abducted Monday, not far from the village where Mr. Rabia was killed.

Mr. Khan was the first reporter to photograph the metal fragments allegedly linking the United States to Mr. Rabia's death. His uncle also owned the house where Mr. Rabia was hiding when he died.

And finally, the body apparently was never recovered. Officials here say other militants took the body from the scene just after the explosion.

But they say his death is beyond dispute, based on DNA evidence and messages intercepted from known al-Qaida operatives.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf initially claimed Mr. Rabia's death was "200 percent confirmed." After DNA tests, he said it is now "500 percent confirmed."