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U.S. drone attacks said to kill 17 at Taliban outposts in Pakistan

The missiles target the network of Baitullah Mahsud, a militant leader, who escaped a similar attack a week earlier.

July 04, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Missile attacks believed to be carried out by U.S. drone aircraft Friday targeted a training center and a communications base run by one of Pakistan's most wanted militant leaders, killing 17 people and injuring 27.

The attacks in South Waziristan, where Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud and his fighters are entrenched in tribal areas along the Afghan border, come just more than a week after Mahsud narrowly escaped a drone attack on a funeral attended by Taliban militants. Dozens were killed in that strike.

U.S. reliance on unmanned aircraft to strike Taliban leaders and infrastructure has angered many Pakistanis, who view the missions as violations of their country's sovereignty and a source of civilian casualties. But it is widely believed that the Obama administration and the government of President Asif Ali Zardari have a tacit agreement allowing such airstrikes.

At least 40 drone attacks have hit the tribal areas since August. Pakistani authorities have denounced previous drone missions, but there was no immediate government reaction Friday to the attacks in South Waziristan.

One of the attacks targeted a madrasa in the village of Mantoi that Taliban militants had turned into a training center, according to Pakistani news reports. The second strike was aimed at a Taliban communications center in Kokat Khel.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met Friday with Zardari in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, but it wasn't clear whether the Pakistani president raised the subject of U.S. drone attacks.

As the drone strikes continue, the Pakistani military is gearing up for an offensive intended to wipe out Mahsud and the rest of the Taliban network from the tribal areas. Pakistani fighter jets Friday bombed suspected Taliban hide-outs in North Waziristan, killing at least four insurgents and wounding seven, military authorities said. Casualty figures in the tribal areas cannot be confirmed because the government strictly controls access to the region.

The airstrikes in North Waziristan took place in an area where militants ambushed a convoy of Pakistani soldiers Sunday, killing 16. That ambush was carried out by militants loyal to Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who announced this week that he was scrapping a peace deal with Pakistani leaders because of the U.S. attacks on Pakistani soil.

The government's bid to root out militants from the Waziristan region opens a second front in its war against the Taliban, following an offensive in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts in April. Authorities launched that assault after Taliban leaders there had reneged on a peace deal.

Pakistani military leaders assert that they have cleared most of the Swat, Buner and Dir districts of militants, though top Taliban leaders in Swat are still at large. Military officials said this week that they bombed what they believed was a hide-out being used by Swat Taliban leader Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, but they have been unable to determine the results of that attack.

As the Pakistani government presses ahead with its bid to flush out the Taliban, it has been unable to thwart a series of retaliatory suicide bombings across the country's heartland. The latest occurred Thursday in Rawalpindi, the heart of the nation's military community, when a bomber rammed his motorcycle into a bus carrying workers from a nuclear facility, injuring at least 29 people.

In another development Friday, authorities were investigating the cause of a crash of a Pakistani military transport helicopter that killed 26 security personnel. The helicopter went down about 12 miles from the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Pakistani military officials told local reporters that the crash appeared to be caused by a technical problem, but they were continuing to investigate.

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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