Suspected U.S. Strike Kills 27 In Pakistan

From News Services and Staff Reports
Sunday, February 15, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 14-- Dozens of followers of Pakistan's top Taliban commander were in a compound when a suspected U.S. missile struck Saturday, killing 27 insurgents in an al-Qaeda stronghold near the Afghan border, officials said.

The strike appeared to be the deadliest yet by the U.S. drone aircraft that prowl the frontier, and defied Pakistani warnings that the tactic is fueling extremism there.

In an interview unrelated to the attack, President Asif Ali Zardari said the Taliban had expanded its presence to a "huge amount" of Pakistan and were even eyeing a takeover of the state.

"We're fighting for the survival of Pakistan. We're not fighting for the survival of anybody else," Zardari said, according to a transcript of his remarks, scheduled to air Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes."

Many Pakistanis believe the country is fighting Islamist insurgents, who have enjoyed state support in the past, at Washington's behest.

Remotely piloted U.S. aircraft are believed to have launched more than 30 attacks over the past year, and U.S. officials say al-Qaeda's leadership and ability to support the insurgency in Afghanistan have been significantly weakened. But Pakistani officials say the majority of the victims are civilians.

Saturday's strike was on a compound in South Waziristan, part of the tribally governed area along the Afghan frontier considered the likely stronghold of Osama bin Laden.

The accounts of Saturday's strike could not be verified independently. While the Pakistani government publicly denounces CIA-launched Predator strikes, which are highly unpopular among the Pakistani public, it has privately agreed to them. Senior Pakistani officials have said that the government's intelligence service provides targeting information to the CIA and has requested direct participation in U.S. targeting and launch decisions.

While many of the strikes are launched from U.S. installations inside Afghanistan, Pakistani news media on Saturday highlighted a comment Thursday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said the Predators, "as I understand it . . . are flown out of a Pakistani base."

Feinstein's office said she was referring to a report last year in The Washington Post. On March 27, the Post reported that U.S. drones targeting the tribal area were launched from inside Afghanistan and "from bases near Islamabad and Jacobabad in Pakistan."

The CIA yesterday declined to comment on the reported strike or on Feinstein's comments, which came during testimony from Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair. He did not respond to Feinstein's remark.

Later Saturday, a Chinese engineer who had been held by Taliban militants since August was set free, officials said.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company