By Candace Rondeaux and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 17, 2008
KABUL, Oct. 16 -- A suspected U.S. missile strike near the headquarters of a top Taliban leader in Pakistan's tribal areas Thursday killed six people and injured five others, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and residents.
The attack occurred late Thursday morning, said Ikramullah Mehsud, a resident, when a U.S. Predator drone fired several missiles on two homes in the town of Ladha, in the tribal area of South Waziristan.
A Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the bombardment had killed at least two extremist commanders believed to be of Arab origin.
"The others killed were most likely local militants, but we don't have any information about the owners of the two houses that were bombed," the official said.
The Pentagon had no comment on the strike.
As Pakistani efforts to control the flow of Islamist insurgents across the border into Afghanistan have faltered this year, U.S. missile attacks on insurgents sheltering in Pakistan's mountainous tribal areas have increased. There have been 12 such attacks in the region since August. Most of the recent strikes have occurred in South and North Waziristan, which are believed to be the main operational bases for top al-Qaeda leaders.
Thursday's attack in South Waziristan was notable because it marked the first aerial assault in more than a year on a well-known redoubt of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, according to another Pakistani intelligence official.
The official said there was no indication that Mehsud was nearby when the attack occurred. But residents told authorities that several Arab men believed to be allied with the Taliban had recently been seen in the area.
U.S. intelligence officials have named Mehsud as the mastermind behind the Dec. 27 gun-and-bomb attack that killed former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud has denied responsibility for Bhutto's death.
With an estimated 25,000 Islamist insurgents united under his command, Mehsud is considered by many military and intelligence experts to be one of Pakistan's most powerful Taliban commanders.
Concern about the spread of the Taliban insurgency inside Pakistan mounted last month after a suicide bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the capital, killed more than 50 people and injured about 250. Rising security concerns have been a topic of debate among Pakistani lawmakers who met this week in a closed-door session to discuss a recent military briefing on insurgent activity in the country.
On Wednesday, top U.S., Pakistani and Afghan military officials met in Islamabad to discuss efforts to combat insurgents on both sides of the 1,500-mile-long border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was the second time in recent months that the top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. David D. McKiernan, has met in Islamabad with the Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, and the Afghan army chief, Gen. Bismullah Khan.
McKiernan, in a written statement released Thursday, said that Pakistan, Afghanistan and NATO must do a better job of coordinating their counterterrorism efforts.
"We most close those seams and work together to give the insurgents no place to hide," McKiernan said.
Hussain reported from Islamabad. Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.