Intelligence officials: 2 US missile strikes kill 12 in NW Pakistan amid tension over border

By Rasool Dawar, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

Intel: Strikes continue amid border tension

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Two suspected American missile strikes killed 12 alleged militants in a northwestern Pakistan tribal region Saturday, intelligence officials said, a sign the U.S. is unwilling to stop using the unpopular tactic despite heightened tensions between the two countries over recent border incursions by NATO.

The Pakistani Taliban, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for an attack on NATO oil tankers in Pakistan’s south, saying they were avenging the killing of three Pakistani border guards by NATO helicopters. In apparent retaliation for the killings, Pakistan has cut off a key U.S. and NATO supply line on its soil.

A surge in reported U.S. drone missile strikes in Pakistan along with NATO operations along the border suggest Western forces are cracking down on insurgents who easily move across the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan — something Islamabad has been slow to do despite pleas from Washington. Pakistan’s willingness to block the supply line amid public outrage, however, shows the leverage it has over the U.S. and NATO.

Four suspected U.S. missiles struck a house Saturday morning in Datta Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal region, killing eight suspected militants, the Pakistani intelligence officials said. Four other missiles hit a different house in the area later Saturday, killing four more suspected insurgents, they said.

Datta Khel is believed to be a hide-out for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters accused of targeting NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Those killed Saturday were believed to be insurgents working for warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

The three intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record to the media.

Over the past five weeks, the U.S. is suspected of launching at least 23 missile strikes in Pakistani territory, an unprecedented number. Western officials say some of the CIA-controlled, drone-fired strikes have been aimed at disrupting a terror plot against European cities.

U.S. officials rarely discuss the covert program, but have described it in the past as a highly successful tool that has killed some top militant leaders. Pakistan, while formally opposing the missile strikes, is believed to secretly provide intelligence for them. Polls show deep opposition among Pakistani citizens to the strikes, along with a belief that they kill large numbers of civilians.

Public outrage has also risen over the recent NATO incursions. On Thursday, two NATO helicopters crossed into the Kurram tribal region and killed three Pakistani paramilitary soldiers who fired warning shots at them from a border post.

On Saturday, some 150 trucks were still waiting for Pakistan to reopen the border crossing at Torkham so they could deliver their supplies to Western troops in Afghanistan. But Pakistan has shown no sign it plans to allow the trucks to leave its territory, despite the potential strain a lengthy closure would have on its relationship with the U.S., which provides it with billions of dollars in military and other aid.

A second, smaller border crossing in the southwestern town of Chaman remains open, but Torkham, in the northwest, is considered much more important.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday that the closure hasn’t yet had an impact on operations in Afghanistan, and he believes the U.S. and Pakistan can settle the rift.

“We’re working it with them and … I believe we’ll figure a way to work our way through this,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said in Tucson, Arizona.

The closure of the border crossing has coincided with attacks on NATO supply trucks elsewhere in the country, including the burning of some 30 oil tankers early Friday by suspected militants in southern Pakistan’s Sindh province.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azzam Tariq told The Associated Press that his organization was behind the assault in the Shikarpur area and threatened more attacks — including ones inside the United States.

“We ask the government of Pakistan to cut all the supply routes for NATO, otherwise we will continue targeting NATO’s fuel trucks and containers,” he told AP by phone. “We condemn the NATO attack on Pakistani forces in Kurram, and this attack proves that Christians and Jews cannot be our friends, and this is what Islam tells us. We will avenge this NATO attack by targeting America. We will carry out attacks inside America.”

The Pakistani Taliban is strongest in the northwest, especially in the tribal belt, but has ties to other militant groups throughout the country. If it played a role in the attack on the NATO oil tankers, it might have relied on foot soldiers from militant groups based in Sindh.

Also Saturday, gunmen killed a moderate Islamic scholar who was the vice chancellor of Swat University and his assistant, police said. Swat has been the focus of a Pakistani army offensive against the Taliban, and in recent months, several targeted killings of prominent people from the district have raised fears that Islamist militants are trying to make a comeback.

The scholar, Farooq Khan, also worked as a psychiatrist. The gunmen killed him and his assistant at his clinic in the northwest city of Mardan, police official Zahoor Khan said. Farooq Khan was also a member of a committee looking into what to do with a seminary once run by Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Bob Christie in Tucson, Arizona, contributed to this report.

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