PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A Pakistani journalist has been kidnapped after photographing the metal remnants of what appeared to be a U.S. missile that killed a senior Al Qaeda leader last week, his family said Wednesday.
A day before his disappearance Monday, Hayatullah Khan had expressed fears that intelligence agencies might take action against him for sending his photos to Pakistani and international media organizations, said Ihsanullah Khan, the journalist's elder brother.
Five masked men with AK-47 assault rifles abducted Hayatullah Khan in the town of Mir Ali, about 18 miles north of Miram Shah, administrative capital of the North Waziristan tribal area that borders Afghanistan, witnesses said.
The journalist was headed toward a checkpoint east of Mir Ali to cover a student protest when the gunmen stopped his car. They took him away in another vehicle.
The Al Qaeda operative, whom Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf identified as Egyptian Abu Hamza Rabia, died Dec. 1 when an explosion destroyed a mud-brick compound in the village of Asoray, east of Miram Shah. Rabia was believed to be commander of Al Qaeda's international operations.
Residents said four other people died in the blast: two Arabs also believed to be members of Al Qaeda and two members of a local Pushtun tribe, one of whom was a 7-year-old boy.
Pakistani officials said the explosion occurred when bomb-making materials stored in the house accidentally detonated. They insisted the compound had not been attacked.
But residents of Asoray contended that the explosion was caused by a missile fired from a U.S. unmanned aircraft. They said a number of such drones fly round-the-clock over the remote border region.
Villagers said the metal remnants, which Khan photographed and filed to the European Pressphoto Agency, were inscribed with the words "guided missile."
In Khan's pictures, the fragments are also marked "AGM-114," the U.S. military's designator for the laser-guided Hellfire missile, which is carried on the remote-controlled Predator drone.
The initials "US" are also visible on the shrapnel in the photos filed by Khan, who also works for Pakistan's Urdu-language daily newspaper Ausaf and the English-language daily the Nation.
U.S. counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan are a sensitive issue for Musharraf, who is under pressure from hard-line Islamic groups and nationalists who think he has gone too far in supporting the United States.
The U.S. military and the CIA have targeted suspected Al Qaeda members with Predators in the past.
In November 2002, six suspected Al Qaeda members were killed in Yemen when their vehicle was struck by a Hellfire missile. The dead included a former security guard for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Qaed Sinan Harithi. He was believed to have helped carry out the October 2000 attack in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors on the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole.
A witness to Khan's abduction said his kidnappers looked like Taliban fighters, but his brother and local journalists said it was impossible that members of the fundamentalist Muslim militia that once controlled Afghanistan and still operates in the area had carried out the abduction.
"We have been assured by the Taliban that they have nothing to do with the kidnapping of Hayatullah," his brother said by phone from Mir Ali. Ihsanullah Khan added that he could not blame a specific group or agency for the kidnapping.
The Pakistani military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency is frequently accused of harassing journalists and detaining Pakistanis without charge. But senior government officials in Peshawar denied that intelligence agencies were involved in Khan's disappearance.
"We understand the situation in the tribal territory is not very favorable for journalists, but it doesn't mean that any secret agency is involved in his abduction," said Shah Zaman Khan, spokesman for the governor of North-West Frontier Province.
One of Hayatullah Khan's friends said the journalist had been arrested by U.S. and Afghan forces a year and a half ago near the border and interrogated for two months. The man, who spoke on condition he not be named, said he negotiated a deal with Afghan authorities for Khan's release.
Lucie Morillon, Washington representative for media rights group Reporters Without Borders, charged that U.S. forces had arrested Khan "when he was trying to cover Al Qaeda and Taliban activity in the border region."
"The Pakistani military harassed him the following year after he wrote about the misuse of army vehicles in Mir Ali," she said in a statement.
Times staff writer Watson reported from New Delhi and special correspondent Ali from Peshawar.