MIRANSHAH, Pakistan — US missiles killed at least 15 militants in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt where the United Nations said Monday it was suspending food handouts in one district after a suicide attack.
The missiles destroyed a vehicle and compound in North Waziristan, reputedly the country’s most impregnable Taliban and Al-Qaeda fortress where US officials want Pakistan to launch a ground offensive to eliminate the militant threat.
Local security officials said unmanned US aircraft struck Mir Ali village, 25 kilometres (16 miles) east of Miranshah, the tribal district’s main town.
The identities of the dead were not immediately clear, but officials believed that most of them were Pakistani, rather than Afghan or Arab fighters. The Mir Ali area is believed to be a Pakistani Taliban stronghold.
“According to initial reports a compound was hit, but later on it was confirmed that a vehicle was also hit,” said a Pakistani security official in Peshawar, the administrative capital of the northwest.
“Both the targets were in Mir Ali and hit almost back to back. We have reports of 18 militants death, but can confirm only 15 at the moment,” he said.
Intelligence officials in Miranshah put the death toll as high as 21 and said that two vehicles were destroyed by four missiles fired from US drones.
Washington says wiping-out the militant threat in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt is vital to winning the nine-year war against the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan and defeating Al-Qaeda.
The United States does not confirm drone attacks, but its military and the Central Intelligence Agency operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy the aircraft in the region.
The covert campaign has doubled missile attacks in the tribal area this year where around 100 drone strikes have killed more than 640 people since January 1, compared to 45 killing 420 people in 2009, according to an AFP tally.
Pakistan tacitly cooperates with the bombing campaign, which US officials say has severely weakened Al-Qaeda’s leadership, but has stalled on launching an offensive in North Waziristan, saying its troops are overstretched.
The United Nations said Monday it had suspended food handouts in Bajaur, which like North Waziristan is one of seven districts in the tribal belt, after 43 people were killed in Pakistan’s first female suicide bombing.
The decision impacts nearly 300,000 people who depend on general rations from the World Food Programme (WFP) after being affected by years of fighting between Pakistani soldiers and homegrown Taliban militants.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack in part of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt, which Washington considers Al-Qaeda’s main global hub and is subject to the covert drone campaign.
“WFP has temporarily suspended food distribution in Bajaur following the attack at a police checkpoint several hundred metres away from WFP’s food distribution point,” spokeswoman Jackie Dent told AFP.
“We are talking with the district authorities and hoping to resume the distribution as soon as possible.”
WFP has this year provided assistance to an estimated 2.6 million people in the northwest who have left their homes, returned to rebuild their lives or are affected by systemic violence in the northwest.
The agency also provides rations to approximately 294,000 internally displaced people in Bajaur, where the Pakistani military has been fighting against homegrown Taliban militants since August 2008.
The United Nations said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was “appalled” by the attack.
US President Barack Obama said killing civilians outside a WFP distribution point was “an affront to the people of Pakistan and to all humanity”.
Around 4,000 people have died in suicide and bomb attacks across Pakistan since government forces raided an extremist mosque in Islamabad in 2007. The attacks have been blamed on networks linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.