A suspected US missile strike yesterday killed at least 20 militants, including two foreign al-Qaeda operatives, in a Pakistani tribal area near the Afghan border, security officials said.
The strike from an unmanned drone destroyed a militant hideout in the northwestern town of Ladha, a stronghold of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud, a senior official told reporters.
“Two missiles were fired at a Taliban den in South Waziristan district early Saturday, and so far 20 bodies had been recovered from the rubble,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
Another security official confirmed the toll, adding that at least two Arab al-Qaeda operatives were among those killed.
Residents said Taliban militants surrounded the attack site, which was in an isolated area, and would not let anyone inside.
Mehsud is Pakistan’s most wanted militant and is accused of plotting the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The drone strike came despite Pakistan’s hopes the US administration of US President Barack Obama would review the policy and abandon what Islamabad calls a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
Several al-Qaeda operatives have been killed in similar US missile strikes in the past year, fueling anti-US sentiments in Pakistan and particularly in the tribal belt where Washington says al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries exist.
Pakistani troops have been battling Islamic militants in the lawless tribal region as well as in the sprawling northern Swat valley.
Most of the previous US strikes targeted areas under the control of Maulvi Nazir, a key Taliban commander accused by the US of recruiting and sending fighters to Afghanistan to attack US and NATO forces.
The incident comes a day after US envoy Richard Holbrooke left Pakistan where he visited the northwest and held talks with military commanders about the fight against extremists.
Meanwhile, a gunfight between Australian forces and Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan killed five children who were caught in the crossfire, the Australian Defense Ministry said.
Afghan officials gave lower death tolls. Asadullah Hamdan, the provincial governor, said on Friday that three children between seven and 10 years old were killed.
The fighting in southern Uruzgan Province started with a raid by international and Afghan troops on compounds in a village where insurgent leaders were believed to be holed up, NATO said in a statement.
The Australian Defense Ministry said it had reports of five children killed and four other people wounded — two of them children.
Provincial police chief General Juma Gul Himat said he had reports of four children killed. The conflicting death tolls could not be resolved.
One insurgent was also killed, the Australian ministry said. No Australian troops were wounded.