By Kamran Haider
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 1:08 AM
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistan army launched an air strike on a militant camp in a remote tribal area bordering Afghanistan, killing most of the 25 to 30 militants present, military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said on Tuesday.
"The operation was carried out at around 6:55 a.m. (0155 GMT) in Zamzola in South Waziristan, based on information that 25 to 30 miscreants, including foreigners were present there," Sultan said.
Sultan said there was a precision air strike, and helicopter gunships mopped up. No ground troops were used. A military statement later said three out of a cluster of five mud-walled compounds housing the militants were destroyed.
"I can't tell you the exact number of casualties, but most of them were killed," Sultan said.
The attack came hours after Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Kabul for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
A resident of Zamzola raised the possibility that U.S. drone aircraft helped identify the target in the forested mountains, 60 km (40 miles) north of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, and close to the boundary with Afghanistan and North Waziristan.
"It is a small forest where the bombing took place. We noticed a drone hovering early in the morning and then a few helicopters came and bombed three houses there," villager Mohammad Ali told Reuters.
A Reuters reporter saw seven helicopters including at least two U.S.-built Cobras leave from Tochi Fort's helipad in Miranshah less than an hour before the attack and returned shortly after.
South Waziristan has long been a hotbed of support for Taliban and al Qaeda, despite an army campaign that began in late 2003 to clear them out.
The army later struck a peace deal, but pro-Taliban militants grew in influence in the semi-autonomous tribal region, and they actively recruited men and boys, including suicide bombers, to fight in Afghanistan.
Last September, the government struck another peace deal with tribal elders in neighboring North Waziristan, but Afghan, NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan are concerned that that too will result in militants gathering strength.
Most of the foreign militants in Waziristan are from Central Asia, but Chechens and Arabs have also been captured and killed there.
Pakistan has lost hundreds of troops fighting in Waziristan, and has been trying to find political ways to isolate the militants, in order to reduce the risk of sparking a wider conflict in the tribal areas.
PRESSURE TO DO MORE
Although it is routinely praised by U.S. officials for its efforts in counter-terrorism, Pakistan is under constant pressure to do more to stop Taliban fighters crossing the border to fight.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf maintains that the Taliban's strength is inside Afghanistan, not Pakistan.
But, after talks with Musharraf in Islamabad last Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher spoke of high levels of Taliban infiltration from Pakistan despite the North Waziristan pact.
U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte stirred controversy last week in written testimony to a Senate committee, in which he said al Qaeda leaders were based in Pakistan and rebuilding their network, and he described the country as a "major source of Islamic extremism."
But Negroponte also noted the dangers Musharraf faced in using force in the tribal areas, as well as the political risks of a backlash from Islamist political parties, especially as national elections are due in Pakistan this year.