Missiles rain again at Pakistan border

13 killed in area used by militants

By Rasool Dawar
Associated Press / January 7, 2010

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Suspected US drone missile strikes killed 13 people in Pakistan’s volatile northwest yesterday, the latest of five such attacks in the past week targeting an area believed to be a hide-out for militants involved in a suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan.

The strikes highlight Washington’s growing reliance on unmanned aircraft to combat militants staging cross-border attacks on US troops in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has pressed Pakistan to crack down on such groups, but the government has resisted, saying it has its hands full battling local Taliban militants waging war against the state.

US military commanders are especially concerned about the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban group with links to Al Qaeda that operates from Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area. Analysts suspect the group played a role in the Dec. 30 attack that killed seven CIA employees in Khost province, just across the border from North Waziristan.

Since the attack, aircraft believed to be US drones have carried out an unusually high number of strikes in North Waziristan. The tactic is part of a larger trend of President Obama using the unmanned craft more frequently in Pakistan than had his predecessor.

In the first attack yesterday, a suspected drone fired two missiles at a house in the Datta Khel region of North Waziristan, killing seven people, said two intelligence officials.

A second strike occurred as people were retrieving bodies from the rubble of the house, killing six more, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Four foreigners, including two Arabs, were among the dead; it was unclear whether they were militants or civilians, according to another pair of intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason. The identities of the others killed were unknown.

US officials rarely discuss the missile strikes but say they have killed several top Al Qaeda operatives.

Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal area, said he believes the drone strikes over the past week are retaliation for the suicide attack against the CIA.

The Americans “have concluded that the Haqqani network is causing major problems in eastern Afghanistan, and they seem determined to hit the network, so we should expect more frequent attacks in North Waziristan,’’ Shah said.

Analysts say it would have been difficult for the suicide attack at the remote CIA base to have been carried out without at least tacit support from the Haqqanis, who control large swaths of Khost province. Any other militants who operate in Khost, including Al Qaeda, do so only with the permission or cooperation of the Haqqanis.

The Jordanian man who blew himself up duped agents into granting him entry by leading them to think he would help track down Al Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, officials have said.

Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a 32-year-old doctor, was allowed to enter without being closely searched and then blew himself up during a briefing, killing seven CIA employees and a Jordanian intelligence agent.

The network targeted since that attack is led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was a respected commander and key US and Pakistani ally in resisting the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Haqqani, believed to be in his 60s or older, is said to be ill now, and his son Sirajuddin has taken over the network.

Some analysts suspect Pakistan’s reluctance to go after the Haqqanis is driven by its desire to use the group as a future asset to influence Afghanistan and stay ahead of its bigger regional rival, India, after the Americans withdraw.

But Shah, the former tribal security chief, said that even if Pakistan wanted to target the Haqqanis, its ability is limited by the shortage of intelligence sources in North Waziristan.

Pakistani intelligence officials have said that at least 30 of their operatives have been killed over the past year in North Waziristan.

Shah said the lack of intelligence makes it more difficult to choose accurate targets for the drones.