A missile strike by unmanned U.S. Predator planes Thursday reportedly killed at least 25 suspected Islamist insurgents and tribal supporters in a village in Pakistan's remote North Waziristan region, Pakistani officials and tribal sources said.

The attack in Datta Khel, whose victims may also have included a group of elders holding a nearby meeting, was one of the deadliest since U.S. intelligence services began sending cross-border drone aircraft to target suspected militants in Pakistan about five years ago. Officials said as many as 40 people may have died.

Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, took the unusual step of strongly condemning the attack. In a statement Thursday night, he said it was “highly regrettable” that a meeting of peaceful citizens was “carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard for human life.” He said such attacks work against the goal of eliminating terrorism and that Pakistan’s army is “fighting the terrorists and not its brethren in the tribal areas.”

Pakistan’s army and intelligence services have tacitly supported the U.S. drone campaign in general, but the airstrikes are highly unpopular among the Pakistani public, especially when civilians die. The army needs public support to continue its own combat operations against Islamist militants in the tribal region.

There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials in Pakistan.

Thursday’s strike took place in an area known as a hotbed of insurgent and al-Qaeda activity, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and tribal leaders reached by phone. One official said several missiles were aimed at a car speeding from the Afghan border. He said the driver panicked and turned into the village, where a group of elders was seated on the ground, discussing disputes over local mineral deposits.

Some of those elders were reportedly killed on the spot. However, there were conflicting reports that those at the meeting were also tribal supporters of a major pro-Taliban militant group led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur. He is a tribal commander whom Pakistan security forces at one time counted as an ally.


Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar.