DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan, (AP) – Suspected U.S. missiles struck two vehicles in a Taliban stronghold on Pakistan’s side of the border with Afghanistan on Monday, killing 18 alleged militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
The attack in the North Waziristan tribal region came in the final days of a year that has witnessed an unprecedented number of such strikes from drone aircraft flying over Pakistani soil, part of a ramped-up U.S. campaign to take out al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters seeking sanctuary outside Afghanistan.
At least 110 such missile strikes have been launched this year — more than doubling last year’s total. Nearly all have landed in North Waziristan, a region that hosts several militant groups battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, including the feared Haqqani network.
The six missiles fired Monday struck the vehicles in the Shera Tala village of North Waziristan. Shera Tala lies in Mir Ali district, where militants are heavily concentrated. The exact identities of the 18 dead were not immediately certain.
The vehicles were apparently leaving a compound, and one was carrying a large load of ammunition, magnifying the blasts from the missile strikes, the intelligence officials said.
The three intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media on the record.
Pakistan officially protests the strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and anger tribesmen whose support it needs to fend off extremists. But Islamabad is widely believed to secretly support the strikes and provide intelligence for at least some of them.
U.S. officials rarely discuss the covert, CIA-run missile program. Privately, however, they say it is a crucial tool and has killed several top militant leaders. They also say the drone-fired strikes are very accurate and usually kill militants.
Information from Pakistan’s tribal belt is very hard to verify independently. Access to the area is legally restricted, and ongoing conflict there makes it a dangerous territory to explore.