PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistani officials struggled to determine the death toll from a US missile strike which hit deep inside Taliban territory controlled by militant chief Baitullah Mehsud.
Drone aircraft, which are only deployed by US forces in the region, hit Taliban positions on Tuesday then pummelled hundreds of militants who had gathered for a funeral, with 17 confirmed dead in the strikes in tribal South Waziristan.
But with the mountainous area on the Afghan border out of reach of government forces, the exact death toll was unclear and could rise sharply.
The first strike by an unmanned drone aircraft killed six militants in Shubi Khel, about 65 kilometres (40 miles) north of the main district town of Wana.
As mourners gathered for funeral prayers, another drone unloaded three more missiles into the crowd, officials said.
Security and intelligence officials in the area confirmed to AFP that 11 suspected militants were killed in the second strike, but said that toll could rise, with some senior Taliban commanders reported killed.
An intelligence official in Dera Ismail Khan district bordering South Waziristan said they were relying on reports from people fleeing the area.
“Residents coming from the area said that more than forty militants were killed and dozens injured,” he said.
“Frankly nobody is clear about the actual number as the government has no writ in that area… We have no other source of getting information, we are relying on local people and residents coming here.”
Pakistan’s security forces are readying for a full-scale onslaught against Mehsud in the northwest tribal belt, where Washington alleges Al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels are holed up, plotting attacks on Western targets.
“Shubi Khel is a very remote area controlled by the Taliban. It is a stronghold and a base of Baitullah,” said a security official based in the northwest capital of Peshawar.
At a government-run hospital in Miranshah in North Waziristan, doctor Ikram Alam said they were treating the wounded from the strike.
“Twenty-seven people injured in the drone attack were brought in to the Miranshah hospital. All of them are out of danger,” he told AFP by phone.
Pakistan publicly opposes the US strikes, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace. Since August 2008, about 43 such strikes have killed at least 410 people.
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.
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.