- Associated Press - Friday, December 31, 2010

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — A U.S. missile strike killed eight suspected militants in northwest Pakistan on Friday, the final day of a year that has seen a major escalation in drone attacks targeting insurgents flowing into neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

Four missiles struck a convoy of militants traveling by car and by foot near the town of Ghulam Khan in the North Waziristan tribal area along the Afghan border, the two officials said on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

It was the third day this week that missiles have struck North Waziristan, part of a ramped-up U.S. campaign to take out al Qaeda and Taliban fighters seeking sanctuary on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border. Thirty-five suspected militants were killed in missile attacks on Monday and Tuesday, officials said.

More than 110 such strikes, carried out by unmanned drones, have been launched this year — more than double last year’s total. Nearly all have hit North Waziristan, a region that hosts several militant groups battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, including the powerful Haqqani network.

Pakistan officially protests the missile strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and anger tribesmen whose support it needs to fend off extremists. But Islamabad is widely believed to secretly support the attacks and provide intelligence for at least some of them.

U.S. officials rarely discuss the covert, CIA-run missile program. Privately, however, they say it is a crucial tool and has killed several top militant leaders. They also say the drone-fired strikes are very accurate and usually kill militants.

Also Friday, a bomb blew up outside a district police headquarters in the town of Lakki Marwat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders North Waziristan, killing a bystander and wounding two other people. A second bomb targeting a NATO supply convoy in the border town of Chaman set one fuel tanker on fire and wounded a passer-by, officials said.

The bomb in Chaman detonated as thousands of demonstrators took to the town’s streets to protest the continuing drone attacks along the border which they argue kill innocent villagers.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban released 23 tribesmen it had kidnapped and held captive for three weeks. Pakistan Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said that the tribesmen were abducted for meeting with Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at a gathering in the South Waziristan tribal district in early December. Tariq said they were released after being tried by a Taliban court and being submerged in cold water as punishment.

Three intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to brief the media, confirmed the tribesmen had been freed, although the date of their release was not clear.

Tariq also warned Islamabad against opening a military campaign in North Waziristan, which has carried the brunt of an escalation in U.S. missile attacks on militant targets in the past year.

“If the government launches any operation, it will make millions of people homeless, and we will retaliate by targeting the security forces everywhere in Pakistan,” Tariq said.

Associated Press writers Matiullah Achakzai in Chaman and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.