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30 killed in U.S. airstrike in Pakistan

The Predator strike in South Waziristan reportedly targets the home of an associate of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud. Local sources say foreigners were among the dead.

February 15, 2009|Zulfiqar Ali and Laura King

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN, AND ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Suspected U.S. missiles slammed into a Pakistani compound near the Afghanistan border Saturday, killing about 30 people, local officials said. Most of those killed were thought to be militants linked to the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

The raid came two days after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, perhaps inadvertently, disclosed that the CIA-operated drones used in such attacks are flown from bases in Pakistan, not from across the border in Afghanistan. It was the first time a U.S. official had publicly commented on where the Predator aircraft patrolling Pakistan take off from and land.

The missile attacks have been problematic for Pakistan's struggling civilian government, which is widely thought to have given a go-ahead for the raids, although it publicly decries them.

The compound targeted Saturday belonged to an associate of Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban movement, and was not far from Mahsud's headquarters. But he was not believed to have been at the compound, and it was unclear whether he was the intended target.

About a dozen people were reported to have been injured in the raid near Wana, the main town in the restive South Waziristan tribal region. The area is considered a militant stronghold, and has been hit repeatedly in an intense campaign of American strikes using drone aircraft.

Local sources said the dead included Arabs and Uzbeks; generally, the presence of foreign militants is a sign of links to Al Qaeda.

Hours after the strike by two missiles, bodies were still being pulled from the rubble. Taliban fighters surrounded the flattened compound, preventing outsiders from approaching.

The comments about the Predator strikes last week by Feinstein, a California Democrat, could inflame domestic anger against the Pakistani government. At a Senate hearing Thursday attended by Dennis Blair, the director of U.S. national intelligence, Feinstein said, "As I understand, these [drones] are flown out of a Pakistani base."

Friday is the Muslim Sabbath, and the remarks were not widely reported in the Pakistani news media until Saturday, when they generated headlines.

Blair did not directly address the senator's assertion. But he and other senior U.S. officials have defended the missile strikes as an effective tool against Al Qaeda, saying that several important figures have been killed in the raids.

However, scores of Pakistani civilians have also been killed in the drone attacks. Many people also consider the strikes a violation of the country's sovereignty.

Some in Pakistan had wondered whether the Obama administration would discontinue the strikes that began under President Bush, but a raid took place only three days after the inauguration. President Obama has said publicly that decisive measures are needed to dislodge militants from the tribal areas.

Mahsud has been accused by the Pakistani government of masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Pakistan's current government is led by Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari.

Even though the Pakistani leadership has lodged formal diplomatic protests with the U.S. Embassy over the missile strikes, Zardari has said that Pakistan's own interests are served by confronting Islamic insurgents in the tribal areas.

"We're fighting for the survival of Pakistan," the Pakistani president told CBS-TV in an interview to be aired today. "We're not fighting for the survival of anyone else."

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laura.king@latimes.com

Ali is a special correspondent.

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