Sunday, March 16, 2008

MIRAN SHAH, Pakistan (AP) — A missile strike near the Afghan border destroyed the house of a suspected militant leader today, killing at least 20 people, witnesses and state-run Pakistan Television said.

Seven missiles were fired in the strike in the tribal area of South Waziristan, the television report said. The Pakistani military said five or six explosions were heard near Wana, the main town in South Waziristan.

Local tribesman Rahim Khan told the Associated Press missiles were fired by an unmanned drone. At least two hit and destroyed the home of a local militant leader and Taliban sympathizer who goes by the single name Noorullah, Khan said.

Only U.S.-led coalition forces are known to have unmanned drones operating in the region. Coalition forces based in neighboring Afghanistan have also launched attacks inside the Pakistani border in the past.

Khan said the house — a huge, fortress-like compound — was known as a hub for visiting foreign militants. Four of those killed were not locals, he said without elaborating, and seven other people were wounded in the attack. Taliban supporters immediately surrounded the area.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials in the area, both speaking on condition of anonymity because of the nature of their work, said another house nearby was also destroyed. Arab and Uzbek militants had been staying in the house, which belongs to a tribesman named Safraz Khan, the officials said.

Eight to ten people were killed in the second house, they said.

Maj. Chris Belcher, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said coalition forces conducted an operation today in Paktika province, which lies just across the border from South Waziristan. But he said he had no information about the Pakistan strike and doubted the two incidents were related.

Osama bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding out somewhere in the rugged, lawless tribal regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Pakistan has been battling Islamic militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban in its border regions and the U.S. considers the country’s effort vital to the war on terrorism.

In January, a U.S. missile strike on a house killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda militant, near Miran Shah, the main town of neighboring North Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence officials said they found the remains of satellite phones and a computer in that wreckage.

Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mehsud contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan, Alisa Tang contributed from Kabul and Lauren Frayer, Zarar Khan and Sadaqat Jan contributed from Islamabad.

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