- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A suspected U.S. drone fired two missiles Wednesday at an alleged hide-out connected to a Taliban leader who has threatened to attack Washington, killing 12 people and wounding several others, officials said.

The attack came a day after Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a police academy in the eastern city of Lahore, saying it was retaliation for U.S. missile strikes on militant strongholds along the Afghan border. Mehsud also vowed to launch an attack on Washington or even the White House in phone interviews with The Associated Press and local media.

The FBI, however, said he had made similar threats previously and that there was no indication of anything imminent.

A local intelligence official told the Associated Press that the compound attacked Wednesday in a remote area of the Orakzai tribal region near the Afghan border belonged to one of Mehsud’s commanders.

Up to 30 suspected militants were at the compound when it was hit, and the Taliban have moved the dead and injured to an undisclosed location, he said.

The strike is believed to be the first in Orakzai, another sign the U.S. is expanding its attack zone, possibly because of pressure on militants to keep moving.

Since the U.S. escalated its missile campaign starting in August, most of the estimated three dozen strikes have landed in North and South Waziristan tribal regions, where Mehsud is strongest.

Two other senior intelligence officials said they believe 12 people were killed in the strike, including close associates of Mehsud. But it was difficult to confirm the exact identities of those involved because the Taliban surrounded the area shortly after the attack, they said.

The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Liaquat Ali, a local government official in Orakzai, confirmed the attack but could not provide casualty figures or the identities of the people targeted.

Pakistan has publicly protested the attacks, calling them a violation of its sovereignty that also deepens anti-American sentiment. But President Barack Obama’s administration has signaled it has no intention of backing off. Officials say the strikes have killed top al-Qaida figures.

Mehsud has no record of attacking targets abroad, although he is suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain. The U.S. recently placed a $5 million bounty on Mehsud’s head.

Pakistan’s former government and the CIA have named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Pakistani officials accuse him of harboring foreign fighters, including Central Asians linked to al-Qaida, and of training suicide bombers.

Washington has stepped up pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militants operating in its territory who are believed to pose a threat to U.S. and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. Militants have also been increasing attacks within Pakistan, threatening to destabilize the nuclear-armed country.

Monday’s attack on a police academy on Lahore’s outskirts left at least 12 people dead, including seven police, and sparked an eight-hour standoff with security forces that ended when black-clad commandos stormed the compound. Some of the gunmen blew themselves up.

Analysts doubt that Mehsud’s Taliban fighters carried off the academy attack on their own, saying the group is likely working more closely than ever with militants based far from the Afghan frontier. It’s a constellation that includes al-Qaida, presenting a formidable challenge to the U.S. as it increases its troop presence in the region, not to mention Pakistan’s own stability.

Associated Press writer Hussain Afzal contributed to this report from Parachinar.

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