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U.S.: Al Qaeda expert near attack

No confirmation he was killed in airstrike in Pakistan

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. counterterrorism officials said Wednesday that al Qaeda's chemical weapons expert was "in the vicinity" when CIA airstrikes last week hit a dinner gathering believed to include terrorists in a Pakistani mountain village.

They said Midhat Mursi could have been killed in the attack, but stressed they cannot confirm that he was.

Mursi, a 52-year-old Egyptian commonly known as Abu Khabab, ran a chemical and explosives training camp for terrorists in Derunta, Afghanistan, before the fall of the Taliban, officials said. The United States has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his death or capture.

A counterterrorism official said Abu Khabab "was thought to have been in the vicinity" when the missiles struck a compound in Damadola, Pakistan, Friday. Two officials said, however, that they "absolutely cannot confirm" that he was killed.

The U.S. network ABC News reported on its Web site that he was killed in the attack, quoting "Pakistani authorities." However a number of Pakistani officials have told CNN they cannot confirm whether Abu Khabab was killed in the strike.

U.S. counterterrorism officials also said they had reason to believe Khalid Habib, al Qaeda's chief of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Ubayda al Masri, its operations chief for the Konar province of Afghanistan, were in the area when the CIA missiles struck and could have been killed.

They stress they are not sure who was killed in the strike.

U.S. officials have said that four to eight al Qaeda-affiliated "foreigners" were killed in the attack, including some Egyptians. The bodies were quickly removed by accomplices and buried elsewhere, knowledgeable sources have said.

Pakistani officials have said that "four or five" foreign fighters were killed in the strike, along with 18 civilians, including five children and five women.

U.S. officials have said "very solid" intelligence indicated that senior al Qaeda members were expected to be attending a dinner celebrating the end of the Muslim holiday of Eid at the time of the strike, and that Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, could have been among them.

There has been no evidence so far, however, that al-Zawahiri was there.

The strike set off anti-U.S. protests across Pakistan, with thousands of people taking to the streets over the weekend, chanting "Death to America" and calling for the resignation of military leader President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.

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