(AFP) – Jun 23, 2009
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — At least 17 people were killed Tuesday when suspected US missile strikes hit a Taliban base in Pakistan's northwest, pounding militants gathering for funeral prayers, officials said.
The first reported strike by an unmanned drone aircraft hit near Makeen village, 60 kilometres (37 miles) northeast of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan and a stronghold of Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
"A missile attack by a suspected US drone took place in rugged mountainous terrain in Neej Narai in South Waziristan," said a Pakistani security official who did not want to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
He said the first drone fired three missiles Tuesday morning, adding that "six militants were killed and seven others wounded in the attack."
Another security official confirmed the incident and casualties, saying that the missiles destroyed a compound, a bunker and two vehicles of the Taliban in the semi-autonomous tribal belt along the Afghan border.
As militants gathered for funeral rites for the dead later in the day, another unmanned drone aircraft dropped three more missiles, officials said.
"Our agents in the area informed us that eleven militants were confirmed dead. We have reports of dozens wounded," another security official based in the northwest told AFP.
He said that hundreds of militants were assembled to attend the funeral prayers of one of their commanders killed in the initial strike.
"The reports we are receiving from the area said that the death toll may rise as hundreds of militants were attending the funeral prayers," he added.
A local intelligence official confirmed the death toll and said he had reports of more than ten wounded in the second attack.
Security and intelligence officials routinely refuse to be named when talking to the media about the sensitive issue of US strikes.
The United States military does not, as a rule, confirm drone attacks, but its armed forces and the Central Intelligence Agency operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy unmanned drones in the region.
Washington alleges Al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels who fled Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion are holed up in South Waziristan, plotting attacks on Western targets, and Pakistan's army has vowed a military offensive there.
The attacks came after Qari Zainuddin, a tribal leader aligned against Mehsud, was shot dead in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan.
Pakistan publicly opposes the US strikes, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace. Since August 2008, more than 40 such strikes have killed at least 400 people.
Pakistani troops are wrapping up a nearly two-month battle to dislodge Taliban insurgents from three northwest districts, and the military has said it will open up a second front in the tribal regions to track down Mehsud.
A senior US defence official said earlier this month that any operation in South Waziristan would work best with "pressure on both sides of the border."
About 90,000 foreign troops -- most of them from the United States -- are currently deployed in Afghanistan to battle an insurgency by the Taliban, which was ousted from government by the 2001 US-led invasion.
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