By Alex Rodriguez and Zulfiqar Ali, Los Angeles Times –
ISLAMABAD and PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A U.S. drone missile strike killed four suspected militants in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday, ending a six-week hiatus in such attacks imposed by Washington following American airstrikes late last year that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and severely marred relations between the two nations.
Pakistani intelligence sources said the missile strike hit a three-room house less than a mile from the town of Miram Shah in North Waziristan, a tribal region along the Afghan border. The area is a major stronghold for a variety of Islamist militant groups, including al-Qaida, the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, the latter regarded by U.S. officials as the biggest threat to their troops in Afghanistan.
The sources said four suspected militants, all non-Pakistanis, were killed in the strike. “The bodies were completely burned beyond recognition,” said a local tribesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It remained unclear how Pakistan would react, or whether Islamabad tacitly approved the strike. Many Pakistanis denounce the U.S. drone missile campaign as a blatant violation of their country’s sovereignty and contend that the strikes kill many more civilians than militants.
The Pakistani government has a history of publicly condemning the drone campaign while quietly acquiescing to its continuation. However, the U.S. airstrikes that mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border Nov. 26 incensed the Pakistani military and government, which viewed the attack as deliberate and unprovoked.
In retaliation for the airstrikes, Islamabad shut down the use of Pakistan as a transit country for NATO shipments bound for Western forces in Afghanistan. The United States was forced to vacate an air base in southern Pakistan that the CIA had used to launch drone flights into Pakistan’s volatile tribal areas, though Washington still can carry out drone flights from bases in Afghanistan.
Pakistan also threatened to set up air defense systems at the Afghan border that could shoot down U.S. military aircraft crossing into Pakistani territory and has demanded a new set of ground rules governing cooperation between the two countries.
A parliament committee on national security is crafting recommendations for those rules, and one of them is a cessation in drone strikes on Pakistani territory, according to a senior Pakistani official familiar with the committee’s deliberations. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
Drone strikes in Pakistan had stopped following the Nov. 26 attack. Current and former U.S. officials recently told the Los Angeles Times that the CIA had suspended drone missile strikes on gatherings of low-ranking militants suspected in attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The move, they said, was an attempt to patch up steadily eroding ties between the two countries.