ISLAMABAD (AP) – A suspected U.S. missile strike by a drone aircraft flattened a militant hide-out in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, killing 27 local and foreign insurgents, intelligence officials said.
Several more purported militants were wounded in the attack in South Waziristan, a militant stronghold near the Afghan border where al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are believed to be hiding.
The new U.S. administration has brushed off Pakistani criticism that the missile strikes fuel religious extremism and boost anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world’s only nuclear-armed nation.
Pilotless U.S. aircraft are believed to have launched more than 30 attacks since July, and American officials say al-Qaeda’s leadership has been decimated. Pakistani officials say the vast majority of the victims are civilians.
Taliban fighters surrounded the compound targeted Saturday in the village of Shrawangai Nazarkhel and carried away the dead and wounded in several vehicles.
Intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said the victims included about 15 ethnic Uzbek militants and several Afghans. Their seniority was unclear.
Two of the officials said dozens of followers of Pakistan’s top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, were staying in the housing compound when it was hit.
Pakistan’s former government and the CIA have named Mehsud as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto near Islamabad.
Pakistani officials accuse him of harboring foreign fighters, including Central Asians linked to al-Qaeda, and of training suicide bombers.
The accounts of Saturday’s incident could not be verified independently. The tribally governed region is unsafe for reporters. The U.S. Embassy had no comment, while Pakistani government and army spokesman were unavailable.
Pakistani leaders told visiting American envoy Richard Holbrooke earlier this week that the missile strikes kill too many civilians and undermine the government’s own counterinsurgency strategy.
Still, many analysts suspect that Pakistan has tacitly consented to the attacks in order not to endanger billions of dollars in American and Western support for its powerful military and its ailing economy.
Pakistan’s pro-Western government, led by Bhutto widower Asif Ali Zardari, has signed peace deals with tribal leaders in the northwest while launching a series of military operations of its own against hard-liners. However, government forces are bogged down in several regions and Taliban militants have sustained a campaign that has included a string of kidnappings and other attacks on foreigners.
On Friday, a shadowy organization holding an American employee of the United Nations warned it would kill him within 72 hours and issued a grainy video of the blindfolded captive saying he was “sick and in trouble.”
Gunmen seized John Solecki on Feb. 2 after shooting his driver to death as they drove to work in Quetta, a city near the Afghan border.
The kidnappers identified themselves as the Baluchistan Liberation United Front, suggesting a link to local separatists rather than the Taliban or al-Qaeda. They are demanding the release of hundreds of people allegedly held in Pakistan.
But officials say the group is unknown and has yet to contact the United Nations. Fears for Solecki’s safety are intense after Taliban militants apparently beheaded an abducted Polish geologist. If confirmed, the Pole’s slaying would be the first killing of a Western hostage in Pakistan since American journalist Daniel Pearl was killed in 2002.
Zardari said in a television interview that the Taliban had expanded their presence to a “huge amount” of Pakistan and were eyeing a takeover of the state. He sought to counter the view of many Pakistanis that the country is fighting Islamist militants, who have enjoyed state support in the past, only at Washington’s behest.
“We’re fighting for the survival of Pakistan. We’re not fighting for the survival of anybody else,” Zardari said, according to a transcript of his remarks that CBS television said it would air Sunday.