Officials: Suspected US missile strikes kill 16 in Pakistan amid tension over NATO incursions

By Rasool Dawar, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

Pakistani officials: Suspected US missiles kill 16

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Two suspected American missile strikes killed 16 alleged militants in a northwestern Pakistani tribal region Saturday, intelligence officials said, a sign the U.S. is unwilling to stop using the tactic despite heightened tensions between the two countries over NATO’s recent border incursions.

A surge in drone-fired missile strikes in Pakistan along with coalition operations along the frontier 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.

Western officials say some of the recent CIA-controlled, unmanned drone-fired strikes — which in the past five weeks have reached an unprecedented rate — were aimed at disrupting a terror plot against European cities.

The missile strikes Saturday struck two separate houses in Datta Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal region, killing eight suspected militants at each site, three Pakistani intelligence officials said.

Though Pakistan quietly accepts the drone strikes, even reportedly providing intelligence for some, it made clear in recent days that it would not allow foreign troops or manned aircraft to pursue militants on its territory. After a NATO helicopter mistakenly killed three Pakistani border guards Thursday, Islamabad cut off a key coalition supply line on its soil.

A day later, dozens of NATO oil tankers were attacked while heading for a different border crossing in Pakistan’s south. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for that assault, saying they were avenging the border guards’ deaths.

On Saturday, some 150 trucks piled up near the border crossing at Torkham, waiting for the post to be reopened, so they could deliver their supplies to Western troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has shown no sign it plans to allow the trucks to leave its territory.

Its willingness to block the supply line amid public outrage also shows the leverage it has over the U.S. and NATO, but a lengthy closure could also severely strain its relationship with the U.S., which provides it with billions of dollars in military and other aid.

The relentless missile strikes could also add to tensions. Polls show deep opposition among Pakistani citizens to the strikes, along with a belief that they kill large numbers of civilians. 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.

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 intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record to the media. Several of the dead were believed to be foreigners, they said.

On Friday, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the closure at Torkham — which is considered much more important than the smaller Chaman crossing in the south — 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. He is the highest-ranking American military officer.

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,” he told the AP by phone. “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 gunmen killed Farooq Khan and his assistant in the northwest city of Mardan, police official Zahoor Khan said. 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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