- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Militants searched Friday for bodies in the debris of a house destroyed by suspected U.S. missiles in northwestern Pakistan as the death toll rose to 22, including foreign extremists, intelligence officials said.

The strike late Thursday was the latest in about three dozen suspected U.S. attacks close to the Afghan border since last year. U.S. officials say they have killed scores of militants, including ranking members of al Qaeda, the terrorist group blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

The missiles were thought to have been fired from unmanned drones launched from neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s government publicly protests the raids as violations of its sovereignty and says the anger generated by them undercuts its efforts to battle extremism. Still, top civilian and military officials are widely thought to have a deal with Washington allowing them.

The latest strike took place in Barjo, in Kurram agency, according to witness Ismail Khan and a government official.

The target was a house used by a local Taliban commander as a training facility, two intelligence officials said. Like the government official, they spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

U.S. counterterrorism officials say the local commander has ties to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. Mr. Mehsud formed an alliance last month with two other Taliban commanders in North and South Waziristan that could give him access to the Afghan border.

Targeting Mehsud strongholds in South Waziristan represents a shift in U.S. policy that began shortly after President Obama took office.

Earlier this month, a bombing thought to be the work of a U.S. drone struck a compound controlled by Mr. Mehsud, and last weekend an unmanned drone crashed in the South Waziristan tribal region where Mr. Mehsud is based.

A Feb. 14 strike that killed more than 30 people was apparently the first to hit Mr. Mehsud’s tribal homeland, and other strikes have targeted his followers.

Intelligence officials said militants on Friday were at the targeted facility removing debris. They said 22 people died, including some foreign fighters. They did not specify nationalities, but the region is thought to be home to scores of Afghan fighters, as well as some Arabs and Muslims from other countries.

The United States is pressing Pakistan to do more to fight militants in the border region, which militants use to stage and plan attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The remote, lawless area is believed to be a likely hiding place for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

• Staff writer Sara A. Carter contributed to this report from Washington.

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