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Sources: Key al Qaeda operative killed

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau
Airmen taxi an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle at Balad air base, Iraq.
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Sources: Strike by Predator drone kills key al Qaeda operative.
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Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Osama Bin Laden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A key al Qaeda operative was killed earlier this week in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, two knowledgeable sources told CNN Friday.

They said a CIA-operated Predator drone aircraft fired a missile, killing Haithem al-Yemeni, whom U.S. intelligence had been tracking for some time.

There had been hope he might lead authorities to Osama bin Laden or other top al Qaeda leaders, the sources said.

ABC News first reported the Predator attack, saying it happened in Pakistan near the Afghan border. Pakistan Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad told CNN al-Yemeni was not killed in Pakistan.

Both sources declined to be further identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. One pointed out the report could create political problems for the Pakistani government, which has been quietly cooperating with U.S. efforts to round up or kill al Qaeda operatives.

ABC News reported al-Yemeni was in line to replace Abu Faraj al-Libbi as al Qaeda's global operations chief. Al-Libbi, the No. 3 man in bin Laden's terror network, was captured by Pakistani authorities last week in the frontier along the border with Afghanistan.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the White House could not immediately confirm the report.

One of the sources who spoke with CNN disputed al-Yemeni's importance, saying as recently as last month, he did not occupy that high of a level in al Qaeda.

"...Though I suppose you can't rule it out entirely," the source added.

CIA officials have declined all comment on the report.

Last week, Pakistani authorities arrested 18 people thought to be part of al-Libbi's group.

Pakistani intelligence officials said after the arrest that they have been interrogating al-Libbi, and one said the prisoner was talking.

The official described the questioning as going in the right direction, but said it was difficult to say if the information provided by al-Libbi would result in the apprehension of other top al Qaeda leaders.

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