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Al-Qaida official Abu Yahya al-Libi, who escaped from U.S. custody in Afghanistan in 2005, is shown in a screen grab from an al-Qaida propaganda videotape released in July 2008.
A Predator attack over the weekend targeted Abu Yahya al-Libi, a leading al-Qaida operative who was viewed as one of five candidates to succeed Osama bin Laden as leader of the terrorist group when he was killed last year. U.S. officials confirm that he was the target of the Sunday attacks and say they are awaiting word on his status.
In one of three strikes over the weekend, a U.S. drone struck a militant compound early Monday morning in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s northwestern tribal area. Pakistan security reports indicated the pre-dawn strike killed 15 insurgents, with a total of nearly 30 killed in total.
But. a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that the reports on the number of dead were “exaggerated,” and described the death toll as “less than a handful."
The Agence France Presse news agency reported that in the attack that targeted Abuy Yahya, two missiles were fired on the compound in Mir Ali, 15 miles east of Miramshah, the capital of North Waziristan, near the Afghan border, in an area considered a hive of Taliban and al-Qaida activity.
A Pakistani official, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said the victims were mostly foreigners and Urdu-speaking Punjabi Taliban who had gathered with the intention of crossing into Afghanistan to fight with Afghan Taliban fighters against NATO forces.
Reuters, citing reports from the region, said nearly 30 people were killed during the sequence of strikes, including four suspected militants on Saturday, 10 suspected militants on Sunday, and 15 people in the strike in which Abu Yahya was targeted. Those numbers were challenged by U.S. officials.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said Monday it "strongly condemns" the US drone strikes, which it described as "illegal attacks" on Pakistani sovereignty.
The most-recent attack of the weekend was the eighth drone strike in Pakistan since a NATO conference on Afghanistan in Chicago last month. Since taking office in 2009, the Obama administration has carried out nearly 300 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the majority of them in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to the New America Foundation, which keeps an unofficial count.
If Abu Yahya was indeed killed, it would be another blow to al-Qaida in Pakistan, the so-called al-Qaida Central. The Libyan, believed to be 39 years old, is one of the most influential propagandists in al-Qaida and one of its best known leaders.
Abu Yahya draws much of his credibility from having escaped a U.S. military prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on the night of July 10, 2005. He subsequently appeared in more than 30 videos produced by al Shahab, the al-Qaida media wing, and other militant sites. In December 2009, Pakistani officials erroneously reported he had been killed in a Predator strike, further enhancing his image.
U.S. officials say unlike many al-Qaida propagandists, Abu Yahya also is a seasoned fighter.
In May 2011, shortly after bin Laden was killed, U.S. officials identified Abu Yahya as one of five potential successors to the slain al-Qaida leaders. The leading candidate, Ayman al Zawahiri, ultimately did succeed bin Laden. If Abu Yahya was killed, he would be the fourth of the five to have been killed in drone strikes.
Ilyas Kashmiri, al-Qaida’s director of external operations, was killed on June 3. Abdul Rahman Atiya, bin Laden’s chief of staff, was killed Aug. 22. Both of those attacks took place in northwestern Pakistan. Anwar al Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and an American citizen, was killed in Yemen, also in a drone strike, on Sept. 30.
Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News; NBC News' Mushtaq Yusufzai contributed reporting from Pakistan.