- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009


DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — A suspected U.S. missile strike on a car killed two alleged militants and a civilian in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, intelligence officials said, a day after the U.S.-allied country reiterated its opposition to such attacks to visiting American officials.

The suspected strike indicates the Obama administration is unlikely to give up a Bush-era tactic American officials say has killed a string of al-Qaida operatives, even if it strains the relationship with Islamabad.

The attack came as residents elsewhere in Pakistan’s northwest tried to push out a group of Taliban militants who ventured into their territory from their stronghold in the Swat Valley and killed five people. In the south, meanwhile, police announced the arrest of five men alleged to be planning suicide attacks on the city of Karachi.

The latest suspected missile strike occurred near Wana, the main town in the South Waziristan tribal region, according to two local intelligence officials. A drone had been flying over the area, and the missile landed after people in the car fired at the aircraft, the officials said, citing informants and agents in the field.

The attack also damaged some shops in the village of Shin Warsak, wounding at least five villagers and killing one, they said.

One of the intelligence officials said the slain militants were from Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province. The officials said Taliban fighters took away their associates’ bodies. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

U.S. officials rarely discuss or acknowledge the missile campaign, which has escalated since August. Several dozen such strikes have been carried out in Pakistan’s northwest.

On Tuesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qurshi said his country wants a trusting relationship with the United States during a news conference with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On the subject of the missile strikes, Qureshi said there was “a gap” between the two sides’ thinking.

Pakistan says the strikes are a violation of its sovereignty and fuel anti-American sentiment and sympathy for the Taliban.

Despite the strikes and a range of government efforts to stem the insurgency — from controversial peace deals to army offensives — militants appear to be extending their reach across Pakistan from the lawless tribal regions that border Afghanistan.

Police said a group of Pakistani Taliban fighters crossed late Monday from the Swat Valley into Buner, a previously peaceful district on the Indus River just 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Islamabad.

After the militants ignored appeals from community leaders to go back, armed tribesmen and police confronted them, sparking a battle that left three officers and two tribesmen dead, local police officer Zakir Khan said. Khan said more than a dozen Taliban also died but provided no evidence to back that assertion.

Behramand Khan, another police official in Buner, said negotiations were under way for the militants to withdraw.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan denied the militants were trying to expand their presence into Buner, calling the incident a “misunderstanding” stemming from some Taliban fighters’ desire to visit a local cleric.

“They didn’t know that the mullah was not there in his village,” Muslim Khan said. “When they entered Buner, some people there informed the police and came out of their houses against the Taliban and opened fire on them. When the information about the attack spread, some other Taliban went to reinforce them.”

Iqbal Khan, an area resident, said tribal elders had asked villages to arrange militias to defend against any encroaching Taliban. He said about 200 militants had arrived at one point, and that many were still there.

“The situation is very tense. We are very worried,” Khan said, adding that a tribal council was expected to meet on the matter soon. He said the government seemed unable to mediate.

The provincial government agreed in February to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas to halt 18 months of terror and bloody fighting between militants and security forces that killed hundreds of people.

But President Asif Ali Zardari has yet to sign an order introducing the new legal system, fueling speculation that Washington is pressing him to hold back and that the cease-fire between the militants and the army won’t hold.

Al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban have forged links with a variety of other militant groups in the country.

Police officials in the southern city of Karachi said the five suspects arrested Tuesday were members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group blamed in the past for vicious attacks on minority Shiite Muslims but increasingly associated with al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The suspects were arrested in the Sohrab Goth area, a hub for Afghan refugees and tribesmen from Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region. Weapons, explosives and chemicals also were recovered, city police Chief Wasim Ahmad told reporters.

He said the suspects planned to strike government offices and Shiite gatherings in the city.

He said they had previously attacked a critical U.S. and NATO military supply line that runs from Karachi through Pakistan’s northwest, but did not elaborate.

Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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