MIRANSHAH, Pakistan — US drone strikes killed up to six militants in Pakistan's tribal belt on Wednesday, targeting the extremist Haqqani network and a compound harbouring foreign fighters, officials said.
The Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked faction is one of the toughest opponents of US troops in Afghanistan and was suspected of playing a role in a December 30 suicide attack on a CIA base that killed seven intelligence agents.
The network's leadership is based in North Waziristan, considered the premier fortress of Islamist militants holed up in Pakistan's northwest belt and the focus of a dramatic increase in US drone strikes in recent weeks.
Wednesday's strikes were the first in nine days and came as the White House said President Barack Obama and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari agreed by telephone that more needs to be done to combat terror groups in Pakistan.
Despite US pressure on Pakistan to launch its own ground and air offensive in North Waziristan, the military has deferred any major operation until it has beaten back homegrown Taliban from other parts of the mountainous tribal belt.
Pakistani security officials said two militants were killed and one wounded in a pre-dawn drone attack on a house in the Spinwam area in Mir Ali district, 30 kilometres (19 miles) northeast of North Waziristan's main town Miranshah.
"The target was the house of a militant, Nasimullah Khan, where some foreigners had been staying as his guests," one official said.
Hours later, a Pakistani security official said a drone strike killed three militants and blew their car into a fireball in the Degan area of Datta Khel district, 35 kilometres (22 miles) west of Miranshah.
"They were from the Haqqani network," added the senior security official on condition of anonymity.
Another official put the death toll at four, including two foreigners.
The covert American drone campaign stepped up strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt on the Afghan border last month over intelligence claims of a Mumbai-style terror plot to launch attacks on European cities.
Around 34 such attacks since September 3 have killed more than 180 people, according to an AFP toll. Around 150 drone strikes since August 2008 have killed more than 1,200.
The United States considers Pakistan's tribal belt an Al-Qaeda headquarters and many Western officials say the drone campaign is seen as integral to US-led efforts to turn around a nine-year Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
Afghan and US officials allege that militants use rear bases in Pakistan to orchestrate attacks and that networks enjoy at least some measure of protection from the Pakistani intelligence services -- charges that Islamabad denies.
The war in Afghanistan is now at its deadliest, killing at least 603 foreign soldiers so far this year and thousands of civilians since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime.
But in Pakistan, drone attacks are seen as a violation of sovereignty and have been used as a justification by Islamist militants who attack NATO supply convoys destined for Afghanistan and bomb Pakistani security targets.
A bomb blast on Wednesday wounded at least eight members of a local peace committee in Khyber, another of the seven districts in the tribal belt, local administration official, Shafeerullah Khan, told AFP.
The device was planted on a motorbike and exploded when the committee visited Qambar Bazaar. Four of them were wounded seriously, he said.
In a telephone conversation between Obama and Zardari, the White House said both leaders "acknowledged that more work needed to be done to address the direct threat to our countries posed by terrorist groups in Pakistan".
Obama, who has announced he will travel to Pakistan in 2011, is scheduled to visit the country's great rival India for three days next month.
He also "encouraged" Zardari to work to pass key economic reforms, such as tax reform, which has been considered ever more urgent since massive floods affected 21 million over the summer in Pakistan's worst natural disaster.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the US administration would ask Congress to approve two billion dollars in military aid from 2012 to 2016, satisfying a key request of Pakistan's influential military.
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