ISLAMABAD, Dec 4: Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said on Sunday that the death in north-eastern Pakistan of an Egyptian described as a leading Al Qaeda operative was a big setback for the terror network.

“It is a big blow to Al Qaeda,” Mr Sherpao told AFP, adding that operations were continuing to track down Al Qaeda members in North Waziristan where Hamza Rabia is said to have met his end.

Asked if other key Al Qaeda members were still hiding in the area, the minister replied: “We just don’t know, but certainly there are some foreigners hiding there.” Officials have said that Hamza was killed with four other militants while handling explosives late Wednesday.

But Al Arabiya television late Saturday said it had been contacted by a person claiming to be from Al Qaeda denying that Hamza was dead.

“An official from the Al Qaeda group has denied, in a telephone conversation with the Al Arabiya channel, that Hamza Rabia has been killed,” a presenter on the Arab channel told viewers.

The caller said five people were killed in the explosion. There were two local men, two Tajiks and an Arab named Suleiman al-Moghrabi.

NBC News in the United States reported that Hamza was killed by a CIA missile attack.

According to a CIA list of most wanted Al Qaeda men operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Hamza has a $5 million bounty on his head.

According to the CIA, the English-speaking Egyptian was a close associate of Al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri who is wanted in connection with 9/11 attacks.

President Pervez Musharraf insisted in Kuwait on Sunday that the head of operations for the Al Qaeda network has been killed.

“Yesterday I said (his death) was 200 per cent confirmed. Now, I say it is 500 per cent confirmed,” Gen Musharraf told state-run Kuwait News Agency.

US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said on Sunday that Washington was looking into reports Hamza had been killed but could not confirm his death.

“(Hamza) was involved in planning two assassination plots against (President Pervez) Musharraf,” Mr Hadley said. “So if he has been killed, that’s a good thing for the war on terror.

“It’s part of the effort to kill or capture the major Al Qaeda leadership.”

Asked whether the US had helped ‘take out’ Hamza, the adviser said: “We’ve obviously been supporting Pakistan.

“President Musharraf has been very aggressive in dealing with the Al Qaeda and Taliban presence in Pakistan.

“We have helped him in terms of providing intelligence and cooperating with his forces, and obviously this is something that would be an important thing for Pakistan, an important thing for the United States.”—Agencies

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