Suspected U.S. Drones Kill at Least 44 in Pakistan

[Pakistan Map]
By Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 8 -- For the second consecutive day, unmanned U.S. spy planes pounded suspected Taliban targets in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan on Wednesday, killing at least 44 people, according to a Pakistani official.

The deadliest of the two strikes targeted a convoy of five vehicles heading toward the Makeen area, thought to be the headquarters of Baitullah Mehsud, a top Taliban commander. At least 35 people were killed in the attack, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier in the day, another suspected U.S. drone fired four missiles on a Taliban hideout in Karwan Manza, in the same mountainous area along the border with Afghanistan, killing nine people and wounding more than a dozen, the official said. The toll in both attacks was difficult to verify.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, also confirmed Wednesday that Maulana Fazlullah, a top Taliban commander in the Swat Valley, was injured in an earlier bombing, but he did not give details.

Fazlullah was the leader of a Taliban push to establish Islamic law in the Swat Valley. His fighters' violent tactics spurred the Pakistani government into a major military operation that has been underway for the past two months. Abbas said the operation in Swat, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 suspected fighters, was nearing completion.

The wounding of Fazlullah is significant because Swat Valley residents and Pakistani commentators have criticized the army for not eliminating the upper echelons of the Taliban; he is the highest-ranking commander to be wounded in the operation.

The drone attacks in South Waziristan were at least the fourth suspected U.S. bombing of Mehsud's territory in a week and a further sign that the United States has stepped up efforts against the man many consider the strongest Taliban leader in Pakistan.

The U.S. government does not comment as a rule on whether it is involved in drone attacks in Pakistan. But American security officials monitoring events in Pakistan said there were no early indications that top Taliban leaders were killed in the bombings.

Although Pakistani officials privately support the U.S. attacks, Pakistani politicians across the spectrum criticize the bombardments.

"After all, it's bombing; whether it's militants or not, they're bombing Pakistan," Saleem Saifullah Khan, a senator from the party of former president Pervez Musharraf, said in an interview. "As a sovereign country, we're not too happy about it. It's counterproductive."

Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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