U.S. drone attack may have killed Pakistani Taliban chief

By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Friday, January 15, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- A U.S. missile strike might have killed the top Taliban leader in Pakistan on Thursday even as Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani told Parliament that the drone attacks were a threat to the nation's sovereignty and could "undermine the war on terror."

The attack came during a three-day visit to Pakistan by U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke.

Missiles from a U.S. unmanned aircraft struck a compound once used as a religious school in northwest Pakistan, where Hakimullah Mehsud, one of the most wanted men in the country, was thought to have spent the night. Mehsud recently inherited the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to overthrow the Pakistani government and replace it with a rudimentary Islamic theocracy.

A Taliban spokesman said Mehsud was still alive, but officials said he might have been among at least 10 Taliban militants reportedly killed in the airstrike in Pasalkot village in the conflicted tribal area of South Waziristan. The Pakistani army has been conducting anti-militant operations in that region for several months.

Even if Mehsud escaped, it is clear from the continued U.S. pounding on key militant targets in Pakistan's tribal areas that American officials are determined to keep up the barrage of drone attacks. The airstrikes have intensified, despite Pakistani objections, since a suicide bomber killed seven CIA agents at a base in Afghanistan late last month.

No senior Taliban leader has been confirmed killed by such a strike since August, when Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud's predecessor, died. Pakistanis complain that the drone attacks often kill civilians.

Pakistan's army has targeted Islamist fighters in some regions but failed to eliminate them. In a bid to recognize those efforts, Holbrooke made a brief helicopter visit Thursday to the Swat Valley, which the army cleared of Taliban fighters in the summer. In the town of Mingora, Holbrooke praised the army's success and pledged a substantive aid package for the northwestern region.

Meeting with Western journalists Thursday, Holbrooke asserted that the strategic relationship between Washington and Islamabad is "a lot better than it was a year ago," although he acknowledged that tensions remain. He said the United States takes Pakistani concerns about the drone attacks "with great seriousness. We listen very carefully."

Many Pakistani leaders have complained about the drones, although army and intelligence officials in the country are said to quietly support them.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned that expansion of U.S. airstrikes could "undermine our relationship." He said the United States must not cross certain "red lines" in pushing Pakistan to accept escalating U.S. efforts against terrorists in the region.

But some Pakistani analysts said the possible death of Hakimullah Mehsud should be seen as an accomplishment. "It should be considered a blessing in disguise," security analyst Imtiaz Gul said. "Pakistan has little to criticize."

Holbrooke's visit also came amid Pakistani protests over new "enhanced screening" procedures at U.S. airports announced for visitors from 13 Muslim and Middle Eastern nations, including Pakistan. Gillani, the prime minister, told Parliament that such procedures are "an attack on our self-respect," and Qureshi said Pakistanis feel "innocent people are being treated like terrorists."

Holbrooke said the airport issue was "the most urgent of the irritants" between the two nations, and he apologized for the inconvenience. "Let me assure you it is not discriminatory and Pakistan has not been singled out," he said. American diplomats said that rumors here that all Pakistanis will be strip-searched at U.S. airports were wrong but that Pakistanis and visitors from the other listed countries would be "patted down."

In addition, serious bilateral tensions have arisen recently over denials of visas for American diplomats and harassment over diplomats' vehicles. The presence and behavior of private armed U.S. security guards and their Pakistani subcontractors also continue to be controversial.

Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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