A suspected US missile strike killed at least five people yesterday in a tribal region where Pakistan’s top Taliban commander is based, intelligence officials said, breaking a lull in such attacks and posing a test for growing anti-Taliban sentiment in the country.
The strike came as violence raged elsewhere in the volatile northwest regions bordering Afghanistan: a bombing at a market killed at least eight people, while officials said ongoing clashes between the Taliban and security forces killed at least 20 militants in a tribal region supposedly cleared of insurgents months ago.
Local media have reported that the Taliban claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in Pakistan, including one that killed a moderate cleric, calling the assaults revenge for the army’s offensive in the northwestern Swat Valley.
The revenge tactics seem to have bolstered growing anti-Taliban sentiment in Pakistan, something the US hopes will translate into support for sustained military action against extremists who use Pakistani soil to plot attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.
US missile strikes could undermine that sentiment because they are deeply unpopular among Pakistanis. The government has publicly protested such strikes, fired by unmanned drone aircraft, saying they violate the country’s sovereignty, even though many analysts suspect the two countries have struck a secret deal to facilitate the attacks.
The latest strike occurred in South Waziristan, hitting three vehicles in a section not far from Makeen, a village considered a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud. Two Pakistani intelligence officials confirmed the attack on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media. The last missile strike was in the middle of last month.
South Waziristan, which is also an al-Qaeda stronghold, is believed to be the target of Pakistan’s next offensive against militants. Mehsud has been linked to bombings on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and US defense officials said last week that Pakistan intended to go after him, though no timeframe was given.
The market bombing yesterday occurred in Dera Ismail Khan, a town not far from South Waziristan. Police official Mohammad Iqbal put the death toll at eight, with 20 wounded. Government official Mohsin Shah said the blast appeared to have been caused by a planted device.
“The bomb was planted in a cycle-rickshaw and it was rush hour in the bazaar at the time of blast,” said Syed Mohsin Shah, the top administrator of Dera Ismail Khan city.
Ghulam Jailani, a police official in Dera Ismail Khan, said the blast was detonated by remote-control, while officials said dozens were wounded.
“We have received eight dead bodies and 27 injured, five of them are very serious,” said Mohammad Ashiq Saleem, a senior doctor in the main government hospital in the town.
Fighting on too many fronts could tax Pakistan’s military, not to mention government resources. Furthermore, reports of clashes in the Bajur tribal region underscore the challenges facing the military in holding territory it claims to have cleared.
Pakistani security forces used jets, helicopters and artillery to pound suspected Taliban hideouts in Bajur over the weekend.
Zakir Hussain Afridi, the top government official for Bajur, said the fighting was in the Charmang valley, a stretch he described as largely under Taliban control. Jamil Khan, his deputy, put the militant death toll at 20 since Friday.
Bajur was the main theater of operations against the militants before Swat.
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