By Shaiq Hussain
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 8 -- At least 20 people were killed and 25 were injured Monday when missiles fired by U.S. Predator drones hit a religious school and the house of a powerful Taliban commander in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border, according to witnesses and a Pakistani security official.
The strike, apparently part of stepped-up U.S. attacks in Pakistan's volatile border areas, occurred about 10:30 a.m. in the village of Dande Darpakhel, home base of commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. U.S. intelligence has blamed a network run by Haqqani and a son for a July attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, in which 50 people were killed.
Two U.S. Predators fired six missiles in rapid succession at the village, hitting the seminary, which is run by Haqqani, his nearby house and several others, said Bashirullah, a village resident who like many ethnic Pashtuns uses one name.
A Pakistani security official in North Waziristan confirmed villagers' accounts, saying the commander's supporters immediately cordoned off the area and barred anyone from entering. By the official's account, given anonymously because he lacks authorization to speak to the news media, Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin -- also a leading Taliban fighter -- were not in the targeted buildings when the missiles struck.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, confirmed the strike but said he could not verify that U.S. drones had fired the missiles.
As the Taliban insurgency heats up in Afghanistan, U.S. forces have paid increasing attention to sanctuaries in Pakistan, urging its government to attack them and launching strikes from Afghanistan. Monday's attack appears to be the fifth in about a week.
Last week, at least 20 people, including women and children, were killed in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan after U.S. and Afghan troops flew by helicopter nearly 20 miles across the border from Afghanistan and launched a ground assault on the small village of Musa Nika, according to witnesses and Pakistani officials.
The strike Monday in North Waziristan apparently failed to hit its intended targets, but witnesses said it killed several relatives of Haqqani, a veteran Taliban fighter who is thought to have close links to Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
U.S. officials have named the Haqqani network one of the top threats to coalition troops in Afghanistan, saying that Sirajuddin, Haqqani's son and second-in-command, has used the seminary as a safe house and training ground for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Those fighters have been mounting cross-border attacks on foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistani security forces have raided Haqqani's seminary several times in recent years, but local residents and security officials say it is no longer a training ground.
Intelligence officials say Jalaluddin Haqqani founded the two-story seminary, known as Madrassa Mumba-I-Uloom, in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Haqqani, who received millions in funding from the United States and Saudi Arabia and support from the CIA during the Soviet conflict, personally conducted hundreds of classes, educating thousands of students who later joined Islamist forces that defeated the Soviets.
He remained an influential figure in Pakistan's restive tribal areas for years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. When the United States launched its military campaign in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Haqqani became one of the most powerful Afghan Taliban commanders.
His network's major operational hub is in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, officials say, but the network was originally based in Dande Darpakhel, where the missiles hit Monday. Recent health problems have forced Haqqani to take less of a role in the network, leaving his son Sirajuddin to manage it.
Correspondent Candace Rondeaux contributed to this report.