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U.S. missile hits suspected al Qaeda leader

An Air Force Predator Aerial Vehicle carries a Hellfire missile in an exercise.  

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- A U.S. military operation was under way Thursday to deploy forces into the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan where three days ago the CIA fired a Hellfire missile on a convoy believed to have included a prominent al Qaeda leader, military officials said.

Several people are believed to have been killed in the Monday attack, but U.S. officials said they cannot confirm who they were.

"It would be nice if one was Osama bin Laden," said one U.S. official Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity, "but we don't know."

Sources said the men were traveling in a convoy of sport utility vehicles and had stopped to gather outside their vehicles when they were hit by the missile fired from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle.

The suspected al Qaeda leader was surrounded by security and given great deference, said a U.S. official.

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"That kind of treatment could be accorded bin Laden," an official said, "but it could also be accorded other top leaders."

Pentagon sources said the United States had been attempting to put Special Operations forces on the ground in the area earlier in the week to confirm who was killed but had been unable to do so because of bad weather.

Officials would not disclose the exact location of the attack, but intelligence sources said reconnaissance and surveillance has been stepped up in recent days at several cave sites around the caves of the White Mountains near Tora Bora.

Sources said these caves are known to have been used in the past by bin Laden, and it was decided several days ago to keep a closer eye on them in case he returned to the region. Tora Bora is the last region where bin Laden was known to have been.

Though no one knows whether bin Laden was in the convoy, one source said the intelligence community so far doubts that possibility for several reasons. The convoy was much smaller than a typical bin Laden convoy. That might have been part of an effort to disguise bin Laden's movements, the source acknowledged, but on the other hand it would leave them no capability to fight against a ground attack if one emerged.

The source also noted intelligence analysts believe top al Qaeda leaders have been using "decoy" convoys with switched license plates and markers -- sending them out and seeing whether they get hit.

If bin Laden was killed, it is possible his body would have been removed by now, making it more difficult to determine who was killed.

This senior intelligence analyst told CNN that based on what they currently know, there is only a 10 percent to 15 percent chance that bin Laden was among the dead.

-- From CNN Correspondents Jamie McIntyre, Barbara Starr and Martin Savidge.




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