ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -The Pakistan army launched an air strike on Tuesday killing up to 25 to 30 militants living at a camp close to the Afghan border, in a tribal region regarded as a hotbed of support for the Taliban and al Qaeda.
“The operation was carried out at around 6:55 a.m. (0155 GMT) in Zamzola in South Waziristan, based on information that 25 to 30 miscreants, including foreigners were present there,” Major General Shaukat Sultan, Pakistan’s military spokesman, said.
Sultan said there was a precision air strike, and helicopter gunships mopped up. No ground troops were used. A military statement later said three out of a cluster of five mud-walled compounds housing the militants were destroyed.
“I can’t tell you the exact number of casualties, but most of them were killed,” Sultan said.
The attack came hours after Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Kabul for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
A resident of Zamzola raised the possibility that U.S. drone aircraft helped identify the target in the forested mountains, 60 km (40 miles) north of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, and close to the boundary with Afghanistan and North Waziristan.
“It is a small forest where the bombing took place. We noticed a drone hovering early in the morning and then a few helicopters came and bombed three houses there,” villager Mohammad Ali told Reuters.
A Reuters reporter in North Waziristan saw seven helicopters including at least two U.S.-built Cobras leave from Tochi Fort’s helipad in Miranshah less than an hour before the attack and returned shortly after.
An intelligence official in Wana, South Waziristan’s administrative headquarters, said 10 bodies had been found at the attack site, two of them appeared to be local men but the others were too badly damaged to identify.
The army launched a campaign in late 2003 to clear out nests of al Qaeda from South Waziristan, but when it later struck a peace deal Taliban militants grew in influence in the semi-autonomous tribal region.
They have been actively recruiting men and boys, including suicide bombers, to fight in Afghanistan.
Although it is routinely praised by U.S. officials for its efforts in counter-terrorism, Pakistan is under constant pressure to do more to stop Taliban fighters crossing the border to fight, though Pakistan says the insurgency is largely Afghan-based..
Last September, another peace deal was struck with tribal elders in neighboring North Waziristan, but U.S. officials say infiltration levels into Afghanistan remain at high levels.
Pakistan has lost hundreds of troops fighting in Waziristan, and has sought political ways to isolate the militants, to reduce the risk of sparking a wider conflict in the tribal areas.
Most of the foreign militants in Waziristan are from Central Asia, but Chechens and Arabs have also been captured and killed.
U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte stirred controversy last week in written testimony to a Senate committee, in which he said al Qaeda leaders were based in Pakistan and rebuilding their network, and he described the country as a “major source of Islamic extremism.”
But Negroponte also noted the dangers President Pervez Musharraf faced in using force in tribal areas, as well as the political risks of a backlash from Islamist political parties, especially as national elections are due in Pakistan this year.