Missile strikes by a suspected US drone aircraft killed at least 17 militants in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, intelligence officials said, following reports that a senior al Qaeda operative was killed in a drone strik.
Monday’s drone attack, the biggest since March, may signal that the United States has identified high-value al Qaeda or Taliban targets in South Waziristan, or sees a greater overall security threat emerging from the region.
Drone missile strikes usually focus on North Waziristan. US drone attacks along the frontier, seen as a global hub for militants, have come into sharper focus since Pakistani officials said senior al Qaeda operative Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan late on Friday, Reuters reports.
“The missiles hit a militant compound in the mountains near Wana,” a local intelligence official said, referring to the main town of the ethnic Pashtun South Waziristan region.
Intelligence officials said two drone strikes in one operation hit the compound and a nearby Islamic seminary, killing 14 people, including seven foreigners.
Some were killed as they were retrieving the bodies of comrades killed in the first strike.
In a separate drone strike on the border between North and South Waziristan, a missile hit a vehicle, killing three militants in a village about 50 km (30 miles) away from the first assault.
There was no way to independently verify the deaths. Militants often dispute official casualty tolls.
Pakistan’s army launched a big offensive in South Waziristan in 2009 against homegrown Taliban insurgents, forcing many of them to flee to neighbouring North Waziristan.
DRONES FUEL ANTI-AMERICAN SENTIMENT
But that operation was not extended to the Wana area, because it is home to militants who are not opposed to the Pakistani state and focus on crossing the border to fight U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The drone strikes are highly unpopular in Pakistan because they kill civilians and are seen as a violation of the South Asian nation’s sovereignty.
Pakistani officials have criticised them, saying the strikes anger the public and play into the hands of militants and help them recruit.
Pakistani officials are less likely to condemn the strikes now because they are under intense pressure to prove they are committed to fighting militancy since it was discovered that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had apparently been living in Pakistan for years. He was killed by US special forces on May 2.
One of the intelligence officials said Pakistanis killed in the latest strikes were ‘Punjabi Taliban’, a term used for insurgents from Pakistan’s heartland province.
Their intricate alliances with militants in the northwest are seen as one of the biggest threats to the security of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
US officials have said drones are a highly effective tool against high-profile militants. Analysts say tracking and killing those fighters would be impossible without cooperation from Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Pakistan’s interior minister said on Sunday he was “98 percent sure” Kashmiri had been killed in a US drone strike near the Afghan border. A militant commander from a group that controls the area around Wana also said that Kashmiri had been killed.
US officials in Washington said however they were highly sceptical of reports that Kashmiri was dead.