PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — U.S. forces made an apparently unsuccessful attempt Monday to assassinate a prominent Taliban-linked commander who sometimes shelters in Pakistan's tribal areas, witnesses and military officials said.
Missiles, apparently from an American drone aircraft, struck a compound in the insurgent stronghold of North Waziristan, just across the border from Afghanistan, witnesses said. At least nine people were killed, though some reports put the toll as high as 21.
The targeted village, Dandi Derpakhel, contained an Islamic seminary and a family compound associated with the Haqqani clan. A network of fighters led by Haqqanis is blamed for a number of high-profile attacks in Afghanistan this year against Western forces and other targets.
In the last few weeks, the Bush administration has stepped up unilateral strikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda figures in the tribal belt adjoining the Afghan border.
Last week, American forces made an unusual ground raid on a village just inside Pakistan, leaving up to 20 people dead but apparently failing to kill any militant leaders.
Associates of the Haqqani clan told Pakistani media that neither Jalaluddin Haqqani nor his son Sirajuddin, who has largely taken over the command role in the Pakistani Taliban movement, was in the village during Monday's strike. But some family members, including one of Jalaluddin Haqqani's wives, were among the dead, the associates said.
The elder Haqqani, who is reportedly ailing, made his name as a guerrilla commander during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He also has links to Osama bin Laden, whom he is believed to have met in the late 1980s. The dead in Monday's missile strike included at least three suspected foreign militants, but at least two children and some women were believed killed as well, local officials said.
The Haqqani network is thought to be responsible for several attacks, including a shooting and bombing assault on a luxury Western hotel in Kabul, an assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai and the bombing of the Indian Embassy in the Afghan capital, which killed about 60 people.
Pakistan publicly decries U.S. raids on its soil as a violation of its sovereignty, though the government is thought to tacitly support such unilateral American action. A Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Murad Khan, confirmed that there had been explosions Monday in the tribal border area of North Waziristan that local officials said was hit, but said that the cause was not immediately known.
A Pakistani military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the strike had all the hallmarks of an American missile attack by a Predator drone -- strikes that have been carried out with increasing frequency.
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan did not confirm American responsibility for the attack, but did not deny it, as they sometimes do in connection with particular cross-border incidents.
Afghanistan and Pakistan, both U.S. allies, have had some bitter exchanges this year over responsibility for policing their long border. Afghanistan also has accused the main Pakistani spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, of indirect involvement in attacks by the Haqqani network.
However, in a sign of possibly thawing relations, Karzai planned to attend the inauguration today of Asif Ali Zardari, who was elected Pakistan's president in a vote Saturday by lawmakers.
Zardari, husband of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, took over the leadership of the Pakistan People's Party after she was assassinated Dec. 27. Zardari has been generally supportive of the U.S.-led war on Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, and says Pakistan has its own compelling reasons to seek to rein in the militants, who have staged dozens of suicide attacks in Pakistani cities and towns.
Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.