- Associated Press - Monday, June 27, 2011

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — Gunmen riding in a car with tinted windows near the Afghan border on Monday shot and killed a senior Pakistani Taliban commander who helped train and deploy the group’s suicide bombers, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

Shakirullah Shakir was riding on a motorcycle near Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area, when he was shot, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Shakir was a senior commander and spokesman for the Fidayeen-e-Islam wing of the Pakistani Taliban. He once claimed to a local newspaper that his group had trained more than 1,000 suicide bombers at camps in North Waziristan.

No group has claimed responsibility for his killing.

Both North Waziristan and South Waziristan are key sanctuaries for the Pakistani Taliban, which has declared war on the U.S.-allied Pakistani government.

Missiles believed to have been fired by a U.S. drone hit a pickup truck in the Dra Nishter area of South Waziristan on Monday, killing eight suspected militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Dra Nishter is a Pakistani Taliban stronghold near the border with North Waziristan and has been hit twice before by suspected U.S. drones in recent months.

The U.S. refuses to publicly acknowledge the covert CIA drone program in Pakistan, but officials have said privately that the strikes have killed many Taliban and al-Qaida commanders.

The Pakistani government is widely believed to support the program, even though officials regularly protest the strikes as violations of the country’s sovereignty — a message that plays well with Pakistani citizens, who widely dislike the U.S.

But future Pakistani cooperation has become less certain after the unilateral U.S. commando raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden last month in an army town not far from the Pakistani capital. The U.S. kept the raid secret from Pakistan, which humiliated the country and elicited calls for the government to end its cooperation with Washington.

Also Monday, a senior Pakistani Taliban commander said he is splitting from the group to protest attacks against civilians, a rare criticism of the militants by one of their own.

Fazal Saeed said he is forming his own militant group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Islami, and will focus on fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, is mainly focused on battling the Pakistani government.

Saeed, leader of the Pakistani Taliban in the Kurram tribal area near the Afghan border, accused the group of targeting civilians in suicide attacks and bomb blasts in mosques.

“We have repeatedly protested over killing unarmed and innocent people in these attacks, but no heed was paid, so we are splitting from Tehrik-e-TalibanPakistan, Saeed told The Associated Press by phone from an undisclosed location.

Thousands of civilians have been killed in attacks in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban often deny responsibility for attacks that kill large numbers of civilians, but they are widely believed to carry them out.

It’s unclear whether Saeed’s decision to split from the group is related to plans by the Pakistani army to launch a military offensive soon in Kurram. The army has cut deals in the past to avoid targeting groups who fight in Afghanistan as long as they agree not to attack Pakistan.

Saeed is believed to be a close ally of the Haqqani network, which the U.S. military believes is the most dangerous militant group battling foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Local tribesmen said late last year that the Haqqani network cut a deal with Shiite Muslim militias in Kurram to allow the militants to cross through the area on their way to fighting in Afghanistan. The route would help them avoid deadly U.S. drone attacks that have rained down on North Waziristan, their main stronghold.

But the route is not entirely free of risk. Suspected U.S. drones launched rare missile attacks against a vehicle and a house earlier this month in an area of Kurram reportedly dominated by Saeed, killing 12 people, including at least seven suspected militants, Pakistani officials said.

Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Hussain Afzal in Parachinar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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