- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 17, 2010

UPDATED:

MIR ALI, Pakistan — Suspected U.S. unmanned aircraft fired on a house in Pakistan’s volatile tribal region Sunday, killing at least 20 people in an area hit by a surge of such strikes since the beginning of the year, intelligence officials said.

Four missiles slammed into a building in the Shaktoi area of South Waziristan that intelligence officials said was used by Uzbek militants fighting with the Pakistani Taliban. A suspected drone strike in the same area on Thursday targeted a meeting of militant commanders in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to kill the Pakistani Taliban’s chief.

Sunday’s drone strike was the 10th since the beginning of the year, an unprecedented volley of attacks since the CIA-led program began two years ago. The strikes have targeted both North and South Waziristan, areas dominated by Taliban and al Qaeda militants waging war against both the Pakistani government and coalition troops in nearby Afghanistan.

There were conflicting reports about how many people were killed in Sunday’s strike. One pair of intelligence officials said 12 people died, while another two said 15 people were killed. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The United States usually does not comment on the drone strikes or their targets, but officials have said in the past that they have taken out several senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

While the Pakistani government publicly condemns the strikes as violations of its sovereignty, it is thought to have a secret deal with Washington allowing them. Pakistani criticism has been especially muted when the drones have targeted militants who pose a threat to the state, such as Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.

The militant leader issued an audio message Saturday denying he had been killed in the Jan. 14 drone strike that Pakistani intelligence officials said targeted him in Shaktoi, an area along the border between North and South Waziristan.

“Let me clarify that I was neither wounded nor martyred in this attack, nor was I present in this attack,” said Mr. Mehsud in a message that Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq played for an Associated Press reporter. The reporter recognized the voice as Mehsud’s.

He said he composed the message because a similar one issued Friday that did not specifically reference the attack was met with doubt that it really proved he was alive.

“A panic among mujahideen forced me to issue this new message,” Mr. Mehsud said.

Some analysts suspect the recent increase in drone strikes in North and South Waziristan is tied to the Dec. 30 suicide attack at a remote base across the border in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA employees. Mr. Mehsud appeared in a video alongside the Jordanian man who carried out the attack in Khost province.

The Obama administration’s increased reliance on drone strikes also has been driven by the Pakistani government’s reluctance to target militants staging cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. One of the most dangerous groups is the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban faction based in North Waziristan that is allied with al Qaeda.

Pakistani officials say they have their hands full battling the Pakistani Taliban and other militants waging war against the state and can’t afford to open up any new fronts.

The Pakistani army launched a major ground offensive against the Pakistani Taliban’s main stronghold in South Waziristan in mid-October, but many of the militants fled ahead of the fighting and have been launching attacks throughout the country. More than 600 people have been killed in the past three months.

Two anti-Taliban tribal elders were killed in separate attacks in the Bajur tribal area Sunday, said local political officials.

Gunmen shot and killed Malik Abdul Qayum as he was getting into his car in the main town of Khar, Abdul Haseeb said. The attack also wounded Mr. Qayum’s cousin, he said.

Several hours later, a roadside bomb killed Malik Hukam Khan in the town of Cahrmang, Ghulam Saeedullah said. Mr. Khan was a member of an anti-Taliban militia that fought alongside soldiers to expel militants from Bajur last year, he said.

Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Anwarullah Khan in Khar contributed to this report.

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