Between 20 and 30 people were reported killed by US missile strikes deep inside Taliban territory controlled by militant chief Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistan army spokesman said yesterday.
Drone aircraft, which are only deployed by US forces in the region, hit Taliban positions on Tuesday then struck as hundreds of people gathered for a funeral in Mehsud’s northwest tribal stronghold of South Waziristan.
But with the mountainous area on the Afghan border out of reach of government forces, security officials and Taliban militants have been giving widely differing death tolls, with some saying up to 65 people were killed.
“We have initial reports that are not confirmed but the casualties are somewhere between 20 [and] 30,” military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said in Islamabad. “There were two attacks.”
Pakistani security forces are readying for a full-scale onslaught against Mehsud in the northwest tribal belt, where Washington alleges al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels are holed up, plotting attacks on Western targets.
The first strike by an unmanned drone killed six militants in Shubi Khel, a remote area under the control of Mehsud’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan about 65km north of the main district town of Wana.
As mourners gathered for funeral prayers, another drone unloaded three more missiles into the crowd, officials and residents said.
“After the prayers ended people were asking each other to leave the area as drones were hovering,” Mohammad Saeed Khan, 35, who lost his right leg in the attack, said from Miranshah hospital in North Waziristan.
“First two drones fired two missiles, it created a havoc, there was smoke and dust everywhere. Injured people were crying and asking for help ... they fired the third missile after a minute, and I fell on the ground,” he said.
Rumors also circulated that Mehsud himself had been in the area before the drone attack, but officials would not confirm his presence.
Wali Ur Rehman, a deputy of Mehsud, called an Agence France-Presse reporter in Peshawar and claimed that 65 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the strikes.
“One of our commanders Billal was also martyred. We buried them all in three different graves as some of the bodies were badly mutilated,” he said.
“Our leadership is safe,” he said from an unknown location.
An intelligence official in Dera Ismail Khan district bordering South Waziristan said that the death tolls were impossible to verify.
“Frankly nobody is clear about the actual number as the government has no writ in that area ... We have no other source of getting information, we are relying on local people and residents coming here,” he said.
Pakistan publicly opposes the US strikes, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace. Since August last year, about 43 such strikes have killed at least 410 people.
The US military does not, as a rule, confirm drone attacks, but its armed forces and the CIA operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy drones in the region.