PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – US missiles killed 18 militants in Pakistan’s tribal district of South Waziristan on Monday, destroying compounds and a vehicle in the deadliest drone strikes for months, local officials said.
Three strikes were reported just days after Pakistani officials said they believed senior Al-Qaeda commander Ilyas Kashmiri had died in a similar attack late Friday, also in South Waziristan which borders Afghanistan.
Washington has called Pakistan’s semi-autonomous northwest tribal region the most dangerous place on Earth and the global headquarters of Al-Qaeda, where Taliban and other Al-Qaeda-linked networks have carved out strongholds.
The first strike killed seven militants in the early hours in Shalam Raghzai, 10 kilometres (six miles) northwest of Wana, the district’s main town.
A second struck a compound in Wacha Dana, 12 kilometres northwest of Wana, killing eight militants, Pakistani officials said.
The third hit around eight hours later in the Dray Nishtar area, which lies on the border with North Waziristan at 10:45 am (0545 GMT), about 30 kilometres from the site of the other two raids.
“A US drone fired two missiles on a militant vehicle killing three rebels,” a senior Pakistani security official told AFP of the third attack.
Another official warned the death toll could rise. The combined toll of 18 made Monday’s drone strikes the deadliest reported in Pakistan since a salvo of US missiles killed at least 35 people on March 17.
Initial reports suggested that foreign militants may have been killed and that Pakistani Taliban were also targeted.
One of the demolished compounds was near a madrassa and just south of the Ghwakhwa area, where Kashmiri, one of Al-Qaeda’s most feared operational leaders, was reportedly killed days earlier.
Kashmiri has a US bounty of $5 million on his head. Pakistani officials said he was the target of a Friday drone strike in which nine members of his outlawed Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islam (HuJI) group died.
The 47-year-old has been blamed for high-profile attacks on Western targets, accused over the November 2008 attacks on India’s financial capital Mumbai and for masterminding devastating attacks on Pakistan’s military.
Although the United States does not confirm Predator drone attacks, its military and the CIA operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy the armed, unmanned aircraft in the region.
Retired Pakistani general turned military analyst Talat Masood said, that if confirmed, Kashmiri’s death would be a “big blow” to Al-Qaeda and put other militant leaders on the run.
“He was very close to Al-Qaeda and was responsible for major attacks… He was continuously planning more,” he told AFP.
US drones have reportedly carried out 12 strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt since US commandos killed Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a raid in the garrison city of Abbottabad on May 2.
Pakistan is on the frontline of the US-led war on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and bomb attacks across the country have killed more than 4,400 people in the last four years — blamed on militants opposed to the government’s US alliance.
On Sunday, at least 24 people were killed in two separate bombings in the northwest — the first at a bus terminal and the second at a bakery.
The bin Laden raid profoundly jolted Pakistan’s security establishment, with its intelligence services and military widely accused of incompetence or complicity over the presence of bin Laden close to a military academy.
Most US drone strikes take place in North Waziristan, the most notorious Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda bastion in Pakistan, where the United States wants Pakistan to launch a ground offensive as soon as possible.
Analysts suggested that Monday’s attacks in South Waziristan could be linked to recent press reports about an impending Pakistani offensive in North Waziristan and the subsequent flight of militants into neighbouring districts.
“The US wants to put pressure on Pakistan for a military operation in North Waziristan. This pressure will increase in coming days with an increase in the drone attacks,” tribal affairs expert Rahimullah Yusufzai told AFP.
The drone strikes are hugely unpopular among the general public, who are deeply opposed to the government’s alliance with Washington, but US officials say the missile strikes have severely weakened Al-Qaeda’s leadership.
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