BENGHAZI, Libya — A senior al-Qaida leader was reportedly killed in a late-night drone strike that hit his home in Libya's remote south, a Libyan news agency said Tuesday. The strike was suspected to be the work of a Western military but a Pentagon spokesman denied it was carried out by the United States.
The LANA news agency said that Abu Talha al-Hassnawi, a key figure in al-Qaida's North African affiliate, was killed in his house in Sabha late on Monday.
According to the agency, al-Hassnawi was previously a leading member of al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, and was a leading recruiter of fighters heading to fight in Syria's vicious and complex conflict that has seen rival al-Qaida and Islamic State militants battle each other.
Al-Hassnawi was also purportedly close to the a top militant once considered the most dangerous man in the Sahara — the one-eyed terror leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former member of al-Qaida's North Africa branch — and has been seen in his company in the past.
LANA also said that al-Hassnawi had fled to Sabha from the northern coastal city of Sirte, where Libyan militias and forces loyal to the U.N.-brokered government in the capital, Tripoli, are battling the Islamic State affiliate with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
Libya is split between two rival governments, the U.N.-backed one in Tripoli and its rival, based in the country's east. The LANA news agency that reported al-Hassnawi's death is affiliated with the east-based government.
A resident who lives near Sabha said the strike took place at 11:15 p.m. on Monday and that it targeted a house the Gurtha Shati village on Sabha's outskirts. The attack left seven bodies completely charred so it was impossible to identify al-Hassnawi, he added.
The locals knew that the al-Qaida leader had been in the house but "no one can tell who is who" among the bodies, the witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing for his safety.
The witness also said he had seen al-Hassnawi together with Belmokhtar, whom a U.S. drone strike failed to kill last year in the eastern Libyan town of Adjabiya, and that the two "came back from the fighting in Sirte."
It was not immediately possible to verify his account and local officials could not be reached for comment.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the Libya strike was not carried out by the United States.
The U.S. Treasury Department designated Belmokhtar as a foreign terrorist in 2003. Prosecutors said he was a key leader of al-Qaida's efforts in North Africa starting in 2008 as he led attacks that resulted in the kidnapping and murder of numerous individuals. There is a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Believed to be 43 years old, Belmokhtar has also been dubbed "the one-eyed sheik" after losing an eye in combat. One of his aliases was "Mr. Marlboro" because he was accused of smuggling cigarettes through the Sahara and the Sahel regions in Africa.
He is accused of participating in a January 2013 attack on a Western-owned gas processing facility in a remote part of eastern Algeria near the border with Libya.
After a four-day standoff, the Algerian army moved in and killed 29 attackers and captured three others. At least 37 hostages, including one Algerian worker, died in the battle. Three Americans and scores of Algerian and foreign nationals were killed.
The U.S. has closely monitored movements of Islamic State and al-Qaida militants in Libya, and small teams of U.S. military personnel have moved in and out of the country.
Last November, a U.S. airstrike in the eastern city of Darna killed Islamic State leader Abu Nabil or Wissam al-Zubaydi, an Iraqi national. British, French and Italian special forces also have been in Libya helping with aerial surveillance, mapping and intelligence gathering in several cities, including Benghazi in the east and Zintan in the west.
Libya has been plagued by chaos since the civil war in 2011, which drew in U.S. and European airstrikes that helped topple longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He was killed by armed groups, which have since grown to roil the country in violence.
Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor in Washington and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.