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Senior al Qaeda militant killed in U.S. drone strike

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan has been killed in a CIA drone strike, two U.S. officials said Thursday.

The officials identified the target of the drone attack as Abu Hafs al Shahri, a Saudi national who had been serving as the senior figure in al Qaeda's central command in charge of dealing with operations inside of Pakistan.

The drone strike occurred in Pakistan's tribal areas within the last few days, the officials said, but they declined to provide more precise details.

As al Qaeda's Pakistan operations chief, one of the officials said, al Shahri's responsibilities included coordinating the activities of al Qaeda's depleted central leadership with Pakistan's principal network of Taliban militants, known as the TTP.

"This is another blow at the core of al Qaeda in Pakistan," a U.S. official said. "The loss of their chief of operations in Pakistan, an individual who played a key operational and administrative role for the group, will pose a challenge for (Ayman) Zawahiri."

Zawahiri is the Egyptian doctor who succeeded Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. raid, as al Qaeda leader.

The official said al Shahri had been "a contender" to assume some of the duties of Atiyah abd al Rahman, a Libyan killed in an August drone strike. Rahman had reportedly assumed al Qaeda's No. 2 leadership role after bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos in a May raid on his Pakistani hideout.

The official said al Shahri's job included coordinating al Qaeda's "anti-U.S. plotting in the region," and working closely "with the Pakistani Taliban to carry out attacks inside Pakistan."

Another senior al Qaeda leader, Younis al Mauretani, was recently captured in Pakistan's tribal areas in a joint operation staged by U.S. and Pakistani security forces.

U.S. and European officials have said that as a result of recent successful operations to kill or capture senior al Qaeda leaders, the group's core organization has been badly wounded and is almost certainly incapable of mounting another operation on the scale of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Warren Strobel and Vicki Allen)

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