US missiles killed 15 militants in Pakistan’s Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold of North Waziristan yesterday, the third drone strike in three days and the deadliest so far this year, officials said.
The attack looked set to inflame tensions with Islamabad ahead of a visit by a US Assistant Secretary of Defense, Peter Lavoy, on a mission to persuade Pakistan to end a six-month blockade on NATO supplies crossing into Afghanistan.
There has been a dramatic increase in US drone strikes in Pakistan since a NATO summit in Chicago two weeks ago ended without a deal on the NATO supply lines.
Eight drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since May 23, the same number as in the previous four months, and yesterday’s was the deadliest this year.
Pakistani officials said two missiles slammed into a compound in the village of Hesokhel, east of Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, before dawn.
North Waziristan is Pakistan’s premier hotbed of Islamist militants and where Islamabad has rejected US pressure to wage a major ground offensive against militants.
“Fifteen militants were killed in a dawn strike on a compound. The bodies of those killed were unable to be identified,” a security official in Miranshah said, adding that there were unconfirmed reports that foreigners were among the dead.
In the debris, local people found letterheads of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the country’s main umbrella Taliban faction waging an insurgency against the Pakistani government.
Distrust over Pakistan’s refusal to do more against the Islamist threat has become a major thorn in deteriorating Pakistani-US relations.
Both sides are at loggerheads over reopening NATO supply lines and negotiations have snagged over costings, with American officials refusing to pay the thousands of dollars per container that Pakistan has reportedly demanded.
Islamabad initially conditioned reopening the lines on a US apology for the deaths of the 24 soldiers and an end to drone strikes, but neither is likely to happen.
Instead, Lavoy will fly into Islamabad this week in an attempt to break the deadlock, a Pakistani government official said.
“Talks will focus on re-opening the NATO supply route, ways to promote border coordination and settle the issue of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF),” he said.
From 2002 until last year, the US paid Pakistan US$8.8 billion for its efforts to fight militancy under the CSF, but Islamabad stopped claiming the money after US troops killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year in May.
However, analysts say that Islamabad desperately needs the money with a budget deficit looming out of control and a general election widely believed to be months away.
Pakistani authorities are increasingly vocal in their belief that drone strikes violate national sovereignty.
However, US officials consider the attacks vital in the war against Islamist extremists, despite concerns from rights activists over civilian casualties.
The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has said that under US President Barack Obama, one drone strike has hit Pakistan every four days on average.
It said most of the 2,292 to 2,863 people reported to have died were low-ranking militants, but that only 126 fighters had been named.
It said it had credible reports of 385 to 775 civilians being killed, including 164 to 168 children.