PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A U.S. drone fired a missile into a Pakistani Taliban stronghold near the Afghan border on Tuesday, killing at least 14 militants, intelligence officials and residents said.
The United States, grappling with an intensifying Afghan insurgency, began stepping up attacks by pilotless drone aircraft on northwestern Pakistani militant enclaves a year ago despite the complaints of its ally, Pakistan.
The latest attack was in the South Waziristan region, in a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, the officials and residents said.
Fourteen militants have been killed and several wounded in the attack that targeted an important compound of Baitullah Mehsud, said Jan Mohammad Mehsud, a resident of the area.
One intelligence agency official said that four or five foreigners were among the 14 people killed, but he had no further information about their identities.
Another intelligence official said that up to 17 people were killed. About 70 militants were killed in a similar strike in the same area last month.
The drone attacks have come as Pakistani troops are slowly preparing for an offensive against Mehsud, carrying out air strikes to soften up targets while soldiers have been sealing off roads into his area.
Mehsud, an al Qaeda ally, is accused of orchestrating a campaign of bombings in Pakistan, including the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The United States has announced a reward of $5 million for information leading to his arrest or location, while the Pakistani government last month posted a reward of 50 million rupees ($615,000) for him.
While Pakistan battles the Taliban on its side of the Afghan border, thousands of U.S. Marines have launched an offensive against the Afghan Taliban in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
Pakistan officially objects to the strikes by pilotless U.S. aircraft on its soil, saying they violate its sovereignty and undermine efforts to deal with militancy by inflaming public anger and bolstering support for the militants.
But U.S. officials have said the strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad which allows Pakistani leaders to decry the attacks in public.
Residents said that two Pakistani military aircraft flew over the area shortly after the missile strike.
After an alarming expansion of militant influence in northwest Pakistan, the army went on the offensive in Swat two months ago. U.S. officials, fearful for Pakistan's stability and the safety of its nuclear arsenal, welcomed the action.
The military says it is nearing the end of the offensive in Swat, a former tourist valley northwest of Islamabad, although soldiers are encountering pockets of fighters.
But no Taliban leaders have been among the approximately 1,600 militants the army has reported killed. Independent casualty estimates are not available.
The fighting has forced nearly 2 million people from their homes. While public backing for the offensive is solid, there is a danger the suffering of the displaced could sap some support.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband arrived in Pakistan for a three-day visit and visited a camp for displaced people, telling them they were at the sharp end of Pakistan's struggle.
I assure you that our commitment to you is strong and long-lasting and we want to work with you to try to build the sort of long-term security that you say you want, Miliband told a group of villagers assembled in a sweltering tent.
Villagers said they wanted to go home but were still afraid.
We want to return but not until it's totally cleared, even though we have lots of problems here, said Swat resident Gulzada Khan. We left our homes because of them and now we don't want to live with them, he said of the Taliban.
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Kamran Haider; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Jason Subler and Sugita Katyal)