Officials: US missiles kill 12 in Pakistan

January 14, 2010 6:47:44 AM PST
U.S. missiles slammed into a former school where Pakistani Taliban leaders were meeting Thursday, killing 12 people near the Afghan border. It was unclear if the group's top commander was attending the gathering as scheduled, intelligence officials said. The strike -- the eighth such attack in two weeks in the North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan -- illustrated the Obama administration's unwillingness to abandon its missile campaign against insurgent targets in Pakistan's northwest. Despite official Pakistani protest, the attacks have surged in number in recent days.

At least two missiles hit the Pasalkot area of North Waziristan around 7 a.m. Thursday, landing in a sprawling compound that has been used as a religious school in the past. Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud had been expected to attend the meeting, but authorities were still trying to determine whether he was present when the missiles landed, two local intelligence officials said.

The dead militants included two foreigners, while at least eight militants were wounded, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media on the record. They cited local informants in the area.

A Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Nearly all the missile attacks in recent months have focused on North Waziristan, a segment of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt where militant networks focused on battling the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan are based. Some of those militants are believed to have been involved in a late December attack that killed seven CIA employees in eastern Afghanistan.

It's a region that the Pakistani military has been wary of treading, partly because groups based there have not directly threatened the Pakistani state. The army has struck truces with some of them to keep them out of its battle against the Pakistani Taliban -- who have attacked Pakistan in numerous ways -- in neighboring South Waziristan.

However, a number of Pakistani Taliban leaders are believed to have fled the army operation in South Waziristan and landed in other parts of the tribal belt, including North Waziristan. And the Pakistani Taliban are believed to have played a key role in the CIA attack. In a video released posthumously, the bomber who attacked the CIA base sat next to Hakimullah Mehsud and urged more strikes on the U.S.

The strike came as Richard Holbrooke, a U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, was visiting parts of Pakistan. The U.S. rarely discusses the covert missile campaign, though in the past American officials have lauded it as a successful tactic that has killed several top al-Qaida operatives as well as former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

Pakistan formally protests the drone-fired strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and spur more anti-American sentiment among the population, but many analysts believe the nuclear-armed South Asian nation secretly aids the campaign.

During a Wednesday media conference with Holbrooke, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi stopped short of completely ruling out the missile attacks, but said there were certain "red lines" that Washington must not cross.

"Pakistan feels that it would undermine our relationship if there is expansion of drones and if there are (U.S.) operations on the ground," Qureshi said.

Elsewhere in the tribal belt Thursday, a remote-controlled roadside bomb killed an anti-Taliban tribal elder and wounded six others as they traveled in a car following a meeting with other local elders, local government official Jawed Khan said.

The attack in the Halimzai area of Mohmand tribal region was just the latest in a series of such assaults on tribal elders who have sided with the government against the militants. The Taliban's persecution of tribal leaders has led to a power vacuum in some areas that the militants have quickly filled.