050107masri.jpgIraqi authorities are investigating reports that the alleged leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has been killed in a struggle within his own group, the interior ministry said Tuesday.

“There is intelligence information. Some information, you know, needs confirmation, but this information is very strong,” interior ministry operations director Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf said.

“The clashes took place among themselves. There were clashes within the groups of Al-Qaeda. He was liquidated by them. Our forces had nothing to do with it,” he added, in an interview on state television.

A US military spokesman could not confirm the report.

“I hope it’s true, we’re checking, but we’re going to be doubly sure before we can confirm anything,” said Lieutenant Colonel Chris Garver, noting that several previous reports of Masri’s death had proved unfounded.

US officials say Masri, who is allegedly also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, is an Egyptian car bomb specialist who heads Al-Qaeda’s Iraq’s subsidiary. The US State Department has put a one million dollar bounty on his head.

Two months ago there were reports in the Iraqi media that Masri had been wounded in a shootout with Iraqi soldiers, but these later proved false.

Khalaf said Masri had been killed on Tuesday near Taji, a town just north of the capital that has seen fierce combat between US forces and Al-Qaeda.

On Tuesday, US forces were again in action near Taji “targeting senior leaders within the Al-Qaeda in Iraq network”, after killing five militants in overnight fighting, according to a statement from the military.

“Intelligence reports led coalition forces to targets associated with senior Al-Qaeda leaders west of Taji Tuesday morning. During an operation there, terrorists engaged ground forces with small arms fire,” it said.

“Coalition forces used appropriate self-defence measures and engaged the armed men, killing five. Six suspected terrorists were detained. Coalition forces found weapons and grenades, which they destroyed on site.”

It was not clear if the Taji clash was linked to the hunt for Masri.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse