DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — A U.S. missile strike in Pakistan killed one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists, a man suspected in a deadly 1986 plane hijacking with a $5 million bounty on his head, three Pakistani intelligence officials said Friday.
The death would be the latest victory for the CIA-led missile campaign against militant targets in Pakistan’s insurgent-riddled tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, a campaign that has recently escalated. One Thursday is believed to have missed Pakistan’s Taliban chief.
The intelligence officials said a Jan. 9 missile strike in the North Waziristan tribal region killed Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim. The FBI’s Web site lists him as a Palestinian with possible Lebanese citizenship. The Pakistani officials called him an al-Qaida member, but the FBI site says he was a member of the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist group.
Rahim is wanted for his alleged role in the Sept. 5, 1986, hijacking of Pan American World Airways Flight 73 during a stop in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, according to the FBI site.
The hijackers demanded that 1,500 prisoners in Cyprus and Israel be released and that they be flown out of Pakistan. At one point, the hijackers shot and threw hand grenades at passengers and crew in one part of the plane. Some 20 people, including two Americans, died during the hijacking.
Rahim had been tried and convicted by Pakistan, but he and three suspected accomplices were apparently released in January 2008. All four were added to the FBI list late last year.
The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. The three Pakistani intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they lacked authority to speak to media on the record. They cited field informants and sources in militant ranks.
But the information is nearly impossible to verify independently because access to Pakistan’s tribal regions is restricted.
North Waziristan is considered a key sanctuary for a range of militant groups, including al-Qaida and factions focused on battling the U.S. in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been resisting mounting U.S. pressure to wage an army offensive in the region.
In the meantime, the U.S. has been pounding it with missiles — at least nine strikes have taken place in the past two weeks.
Four of the drone-fired missiles landed Friday in the Zarniri area of North Waziristan, killing three people. The area is near where a strike Thursday killed 12 people but is thought to have missed its apparent target, Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
A purported audiotape of Mehsud denying his death emerged Friday but contained no specific reference to the missile strike.
The lack of a reference to Thursday’s strike means the tape could have been recorded prior, possibly to keep the Pakistani Taliban united in case Mehsud was incapacitated. Militants have in the past given misleading information about who lived and who died.
“Propaganda is spreading through the media that Hakimullah has been martyred, and propaganda is spreading that the operation in South Waziristan has successfully concluded. It can never happen,” Mehsud said in the Pashto language on the audio recording.
Another Pakistani Taliban militant played the audiotape for the AP reporter in a landline phone call, which the reporter recorded. The reporter recognized the voice as Mehsud’s.
Intelligence officials have said Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud appeared to have escaped the strike, while a local Taliban commander also denied rising speculation Friday that Mehsud was wounded.
“I can confirm that our emir, Hakimullah Mehsud, is alive. He is not wounded. He is leading the fighters in South Waziristan,” said the commander, Omar Khatab, in a walkie-talkie conversation with an Associated Press reporter.
Killing Mehsud would be a major victory for both Washington and Islamabad.
Under the 28-year-old’s watch, militant attacks in Pakistan have soared since October, even as the army has waged an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan tribal region. Mehsud also appeared on a recent video with the Jordanian militant who killed seven CIA employees in a December suicide attack in Afghanistan.
Mehsud’s predecessor, fellow tribesman Baitullah Mehsud, died in a missile strike last August in South Waziristan. For nearly three weeks, militants denied his death even as U.S. and Pakistani officials said they were increasingly confident of it.
The Pakistani Taliban appeared in disarray for those initial weeks following Baitullah Mehsud’s death, with several reports emerging of a power struggle between Hakimullah Mehsud and the man who eventually became his deputy, Waliur Rehman.
In public, Pakistani government officials criticize the missile strikes and say the United States is violating their country’s sovereignty. But there is little doubt Islamabad agrees to at least some of the attacks and provides targeting information for them.