By Alex Rodriguez and Zulfiqar Ali, Los Angeles Times –
ISLAMABAD—A barrage of missiles fired by U.S. drones killed at least 18 people in northwest Pakistan on Friday, the latest in a flurry of attacks in a tribal region along the Afghan border that soon may become the site of the new Pakistani offensive against Taliban militants.
Local intelligence sources said the drone strikes hit militant compounds and vehicles in North Waziristan. The area is home to militants from the Haqqani network, an affiliate of the Afghan Taliban that targets U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan; the Pakistani Taliban, pockets of al-Qaida fighters, and other militant groups.
Local officials familiar with the strikes differed on which group was the target Friday. Some said the missile strikes focused on Pakistani Taliban fighters; others said the missiles targeted militants loyal to Taliban warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has struck peace pacts in the past with Pakistani authorities and directs attacks primarily on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The identity of the people killed Friday was unknown. The compounds hit were in the Shawal district of North Waziristan, near the Afghan border.
The drone attack came a day after Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned a senior American diplomat to formally protest the recent drone strikes.
“As we have repeatedly said, we regard drone attacks as illegal, counter-productive, a violation of our sovereignty…and in contravention of international law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Moazzam Ahmad Khan said Friday.
The U.S. has carried out at least five drone strikes in North Waziristan this week, according to The Long War Journal, a website that logs the strikes. Nine of the 33 drone missile strikes in Pakistan this year have struck targets in the Shawal valley region, the website said. Shawal is a stronghold for Bahadur loyalists, but also serves as sanctuary for some fighters with the Pakistani Taliban, an insurgent group that primarily directs its attacks on military and civilian targets within Pakistan.
In the past, Pakistani leaders have publicly condemned the CIA’s drone missile campaign while tacitly allowing it to continue. However, as the relationship between Washington and Islamabad has grown increasingly strained over the past year, Pakistan has intensified its protests. Earlier this year, the country’s parliament enacted a resolution calling for a halt to the drone campaign, a move that Washington refused to heed.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said earlier this month that Pakistani military leaders had signaled their intent to conduct a military operation against militant strongholds in North Waziristan.
However, he said that the offensive is expected to be directed at the Pakistani Taliban and not the Haqqani network, which Washington has long believed is supported by elements of Pakistan’s intelligence community. The Haqqani network is responsible for some of the deadliest terror attacks in the Afghan capital, Kabul and in eastern Afghanistan in recent years.