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Afghan-border missile attack kills 8, Pakistan says

A U.S. pilotless aircraft is believed to have carried out the strike, which targeted a Taliban leader's stronghold.

March 02, 2009|Laura King

ISLAMABAD — A missile attack Sunday near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, believed to have been carried out by a U.S. drone aircraft, killed at least eight people, Pakistani officials said.

The strike, the first of its kind since a high-level Pakistani military delegation visited the United States last week, suggested that the Obama administration intended to press ahead with a campaign of targeting militants in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Two missiles hit a compound near the Sararogha area of South Waziristan. The area is a stronghold of Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban movement.

Local and intelligence officials said at least some of those killed were "foreigners" -- the term usually used to describe militants from Central Asia or Arab countries who often have links to Al Qaeda.

Drone attacks in the tribal areas intensified toward the end of the Bush administration; about 30 such strikes were carried out in the last six months of 2008. Pakistan has publicly protested the raids, but it is widely believed that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari allows them.

The attacks, highly unpopular with Pakistanis, have been politically sensitive for Zardari's government, which is fending off a strong challenge from opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan's Supreme Court, in a controversial verdict, last week banned Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from running for office.

Supporters of the two rioted for days in Punjab province, their stronghold. On Saturday, during a stormy session of parliament, backers of the Sharifs denounced Zardari, and jeers echoed through the chamber.

Zardari was not present for the session. Except for trips abroad, he has lately stayed mostly out of sight.

The Sharifs' political party has gained considerable public support because of Nawaz Sharif's fiery calls for the reinstatement of the Supreme Court chief justice dismissed in 2007 by then-President Pervez Musharraf. Sharif has accused Zardari of carrying on the legacy of the onetime military leader with his failure to reinstate the justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

Many commentators believe that Zardari does not want Chaudhry back on the bench because he fears corruption charges against him would be reinstated.

Against the backdrop of the country's latest political crisis, Taliban militants in the troubled Swat Valley, 100 miles north of the capital, Islamabad, are demanding that the government move ahead with a pledge to institute Sharia, or Islamic law, in the region.

Under a cease-fire accord between the government and militants reached two weeks ago, Taliban fighters who for months have terrorized the onetime tourist haven are to lay down their arms. But they have said they will not do so until an Islamic judicial system is in place; the government says that will happen only after peace is established.

Militants in Swat continue to carry out small-scale attacks against Pakistani troops, despite an official cessation of hostilities. Two soldiers were reported injured Sunday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb. The accord in Swat has stirred concern among Western governments, which fear that the truce with the Pakistani Taliban will enlarge the sanctuary that Islamic militants already have in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Also Sunday, gunmen who seized an American U.N. worker in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta said they would kill him in four days if their demands were not met.

The threat against John Solecki, who was taken Feb. 2, was made in a letter sent to a local news agency, according to wire reports.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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