Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Peshawar, Pakistan -- A U.S. drone missile attack that may have been aimed at Pakistan's most-wanted militant killed 16 people in the country's troubled tribal areas Thursday, the latest in a dramatic step-up of such strikes since a Dec. 30 bombing killed seven CIA employees and contractors.
In the last two weeks, U.S. drones have carried out at least eight strikes in the country's largely ungoverned tribal region along the border with Afghanistan. A video released last week linked the Pakistani Taliban to the suicide bombing at a U.S. compound in eastern Afghanistan used by the CIA.
The early morning airstrike Thursday targeted a suspected militant compound and nearby seminary in Shaktoi village along the border of North and South Waziristan, both regions regarded as strongholds for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Tariq Hayat Khan, a top official with the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, of which North and South Waziristan are a part, confirmed the strike and said there were initial reports that senior Taliban commanders may have been slain.
Pakistani news reports said Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mahsud was the target of the attack and may have been among the dead. However, Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq dismissed reports of Mahsud's death as "totally baseless; we are safe."
The CIA declined to comment on the strike. A U.S. counter-terrorism official said the strike was aimed at a training facility.
"There were reports that a terrorist compound was struck," the official said. "It's not at all clear that Mahsud was on the scene, but some other bad actors plainly were."
Mahsud is one of the most sought-after targets by both the Pakistani and U.S. militaries. The 28-year-old insurgent leader took over leadership of the Pakistani Taliban after his predecessor, Baitullah Mahsud, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in August. Since then he has been responsible for a wave of suicide bombings and commando-style raids across Pakistan, particularly in northwestern cities and towns that skirt the tribal areas.
Armed drone aircraft have become Washington's primary means of attacking Al Qaeda leaders as well as Taliban militants who use Pakistan's tribal areas as sanctuary between forays into Afghanistan to attack Western troops.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's government has made it clear that it will not allow any U.S. ground forces to launch attacks against militants on Pakistani soil. At the same time, Islamabad has tacitly allowed the U.S. drone campaign against militants to continue, while publicly condemning the attacks.
Since President Obama took office, the use of drone strikes against militants in the tribal areas has increased sharply. In 2009, U.S. forces carried out 51 drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, compared with 27 in 2008. Among those killed last year were several top militants, including Mahsud and Tahir Yuldashev, chief of the Al Qaeda-allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The recent airstrikes have principally targeted North Waziristan, a tribal region used as a base by militants with the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban group regarded as a driving force behind many attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. North Waziristan also borders the Afghan province of Khowst, where the attack on the CIA workers occurred.
U.S. officials also have talked about the prospect of expanding the range of drone targets to include Taliban leaders hiding out around the city of Quetta in Pakistan's Baluchistan province.
The increase in drone strikes along with talk of drone missions in Baluchistan has stoked a fresh wave of denunciations from Pakistanis who regard the attacks as a violation of their country's sovereignty and say they cause too many civilian deaths along with those of militants.
Flanked by Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters this week that "it will undermine our relationship if there is an expansion of drones and if there are [U.S.] operations on the ground."
A report released this week by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an independent think tank in Islamabad,the Pakistani capital, asserts that the "vast majority" of the 667 people killed in U.S. drone strikes in 2009 were civilians. Other Pakistani experts, however, have said the number of civilian casualties is not as high as many in Pakistan claim, and that there is considerable support in the tribal areas for the airstrikes because of the havoc created by Taliban militants.
The Pak Institute's report also stated that the number of suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan rose by more than a third last year, to 87 from 63 in 2008. Overall, terrorist attacks in Pakistan killed 3,021 civilians in 2009, a figure that eclipsed the tally of 2,412 civilians killed in Afghanistan last year.
Ali is a special correspondent. Greg Miller in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.