ISLAMABAD (AP) – Government warplanes flattened a suspected Taliban hide-out in the volatile northwest early Saturday, killing nine associates of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, intelligence officials said.
The military has targeted Mehsud and his militant network in recent months in the tribal regions along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The Taliban leader is accused of orchestrating the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and launching a string of suicide attacks across the country in recent months that have killed more than 100 people.
Early Saturday, fighter jets destroyed hide-outs of Mehsud’s deputy Hakim Ullah in the Orakzai region, part of Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt. It was unclear whether Ullah was present at the time, said two intelligence officials who sought anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to media.
The airstrikes came a day after suspected U.S. missiles killed at least five alleged militants in a nearby tribal region. The attack shows Washington’s unwillingness to abandon the tactic even as Pakistani officials say it could hamper their army offensives in the northwest. The drone attack hit a house in Gariwam village in North Waziristan, two intelligence officials said, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
Local government official Anayat Ullah also confirmed a missile hit the village, while resident Ahmad Raza said he heard Taliban in the area saying five of their comrades were dead.
Over the past year, the U.S. has launched dozens of missile strikes in northwest Pakistan. The North and South Waziristan regions of the country’s semiautonomous tribal belt have been frequent targets because top Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding there.
U.S. officials rarely acknowledge or comment on individual strikes, but some have defended the tactic, saying it has killed several top Al Qaeda fighters. The U.S. is keen on ridding Pakistan of safe havens for militants involved in attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Though many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing the drone-fired missiles, Pakistan formally protests the assaults, saying they violate its sovereignty and stir anger among tribes in the affected areas.