- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

UPDATED:

From combined dispatches

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Dozens of followers of Pakistan’s top Taliban commander were in a compound when a suspected U.S. missile attack hit Saturday, killing at least 27 militants in an al Qaeda stronghold near the Afghan border, officials said.

The strike by pilotless drones was the third such attack since President Obama took office last month and could ignite anger in Pakistan over the cross-border raids from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, insurgents freed a kidnapped Chinese engineer elsewhere in the northwest region.

Chinese engineer Long Xiaowei was kidnapped last August in the Dir region of northwest Pakistan. He was released on Saturday, and by Sunday he was at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad meeting with the ambassador, China’s state-run Xinhua news service reported.

Long was in good health, Yao Jing, the deputy head of China’s mission told The Associated Press.

He said he did not know if any ransom was paid or exactly how Long’s release was secured. Muslim Khan, spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest’s Swat Valley, also confirmed the engineer’s release.

A Taliban official said those killed in Saturday’s missile attack were mostly Uzbek fighters.

“Our people have informed us that at least 25 people were killed. It could be more,” the official said.

Missiles hit a sprawling house used by the militants as a training camp in the Zangari area in the South Waziristan region.

“Around 50 to 60 mujahedeen have been living there for about a week. All of them were Uzbeks,” the Taliban official added.

Pakistani intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the news media, said the victims included about 15 ethnic-Uzbek militants and several Afghans.

The seniority of the militants was unclear.

Waziristan is the power base of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and an al Qaeda ally, who also is accused of involvement in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Two of the officials said dozens of Mr. Mehsud’s followers were staying in the housing compound when it was hit. There was no indication that Mr. Mehsud was present.

The Associated Press reported that after Saturday’s strike, Taliban fighters surrounded the flattened compound in the village of Shrawangai Nazarkhel and carried away the dead and wounded in vehicles. The village is in South Waziristan, part of the tribally governed area along the Afghan frontier considered the likely redoubt of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

The accounts of the strike could not be verified independently. The tribally governed region is unsafe for reporters. The U.S. Embassy had no comment, while Pakistan’s army spokesman was unavailable.

In an interview unrelated to the attack, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said the Taliban had expanded its presence to a “huge amount” of Pakistan and were even eyeing a takeover of the nation.

“We’re fighting for the survival of Pakistan. We’re not fighting for the survival of anybody else,” Mr. Zardari said, according to a transcript of his remarks that CBS said it would air Sunday.

Many Pakistanis think the country is fighting Islamist militants, who have enjoyed state support in the past, only at Washington’s behest.

Remotely piloted U.S. aircraft are thought to have launched more than 30 attacks over the past year, and U.S. officials say al Qaeda’s leadership and ability to support the insurgency in Afghanistan has been significantly weakened. But Pakistani officials say the vast majority of the victims are civilians.

Frustrated over what it sees as Pakistan’s failure to stem the flow of al Qaeda and Taliban militants from its lawless tribal regions into Afghanistan, the United States stepped up cross-border attacks last year.

The attacks have killed more than 220 people, including foreign militants, according to a tally of reports from Pakistani intelligence agents, district government officials and residents.

Mr. Obama said last week that there was no doubt terrorists were operating in safe havens in the tribal regions of Pakistan, and the United States wanted to make sure Islamabad was a strong ally in fighting that threat.

Pakistan does not officially confirm the strikes, but has said they violate the country’s sovereignty and increase resentment toward the Pakistani government and the United States.

The new U.S. administration has brushed off Pakistani criticism that the missile strikes fuel extremist and anti-American sentiment, and that it undercuts the government’s own counterinsurgency strategy.

“The government is doing everything possible to stop it, and I hope that America listens to the voice of the people of Pakistan,” Pakistan’s Interior Ministry chief, Rehman Malik, said Saturday.

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