Sunday, October 5, 2008

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — The Taliban is furious about the latest apparent U.S. missile strike in Pakistan, indicating a senior militant may be among two dozen people killed, officials and residents said Sunday.

The attack Friday on the North Waziristan tribal region was believed to have killed several Arab fighters, but government officials have been notably quiet.

However, two Pakistani intelligence officials said insurgents were moving aggressively in the area while using harsh language against local residents, including calling them “salable commodities” — an accusation of spying.

The intelligence officials, who said their information came from informants and field agents, interpreted the Taliban’s anger as a sign that a senior militant may have been among at least 24 people killed. But that has not been confirmed, said the officials, who sought anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to media.

The United States has ramped up cross-border strikes that target alleged al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in Pakistan’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders have condemned the attacks as violations of their country’s sovereignty.

Pakistan’s chief army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said at least 20 people died in the attack, eight of them foreign militants.

Two residents in the area targeted Friday said Taliban fighters warned people not to discuss the missile strike or inspect the rubble at the site. The residents requested anonymity for fear of Taliban retribution.

Taliban and top Pakistani government spokesmen either could not be reached, did not return calls or declined to comment on the strike.

The United States rarely acknowledges cross-border attacks inside Pakistani territory by forces from Afghanistan. A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Nathan Perry, did not deny U.S. involvement but said he had “no information to give.”

Extremists based in Pakistan’s border regions have been blamed for attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and for violence inside Pakistan. Al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden are believed to be hiding somewhere in the lawless tribal regions along the border.

Just last month, a suicide truck bombing killed 54 people and severely damaged the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.

Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government has tried to convince the population it cannot duck the fight against militancy. But leaders also warn that American attacks in Pakistan inflame public opinion against the West and undermine the fight against terrorism.

On Wednesday, intelligence agencies are to brief lawmakers privately on the militant threat facing Pakistan during a special joint session of parliament.

Pakistan has been carrying out its own operations against insurgents in the northwest.

Security forces on Sunday killed two alleged Taliban commanders in Swat, one of whom was believed to be affiliated with al Qaeda, said Maj. Nasir Ali, an army spokesman.

In the Bajur tribal region, overnight clashes with security forces killed five suspected militants, police official Fazl Rabi said. A Sunday bomb blast wounded five people in a compound where tribal elders were meeting to discuss ways to rid the area of militants, Mr. Rabi said.

The military offensive in Bajur has earned praise from the United States, but it has also prompted a mass exodus of civilians fleeing the fighting.

Many are in relief camps in Pakistan, but some 20,000 Pakistanis have crossed the border into eastern Afghanistan, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, a three-day ultimatum from the government for Afghans living illegally in Bajur to leave was due to expire later Sunday. Of an estimated 80,000 Afghans, only about 15,000 had left, said Abdul Haseeb, a local government official.

He said “the administration may be lenient and give them another couple of days.”

It was unclear whether the Afghans were all heading back across the porous, disputed border to Afghanistan or simply going to other parts of Pakistan.

Associated Press writers Habib Khan in Khar and Asif Shahzad and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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