US drones fired missiles at three hideouts in a key militant sanctuary close to Pakistan’s Afghan border on Friday, killing 18 suspected insurgents despite protests from Islamabad, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
The strikes all took place in the North Waziristan tribal area, the target of a planned Pakistani military operation that the US expects in the near future. Hundreds of militants and their family members have streamed out of the area in anticipation of the operation, locals said.
Washington has long demanded Pakistan target militants holed up in North Waziristan and has welcomed the planned operation in the area. However, Islamabad is likely to focus on Taliban militants who have been at war with Pakistan, not those who have been fighting the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.
In a string of strikes on Friday just minutes apart, US missiles slammed into mud brick compounds located several kilometers from each other in the Shawal Valley, which serves as one of the key crossing points for militants heading into Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
It was not immediately clear which militant group was hit.
The US has carried out seven drone strikes in the past week in North Waziristan, ignoring repeated Pakistani protests that they violate the country’s sovereignty and international law. The CIA attacks have become a point of public conflict between the two countries, complicating an already troubled relationship vital to the outcome of the war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned a senior US diplomat on Thursday to protest the strikes, and the ministry’s spokesman, Moazzam Ahmad Khan, called the attacks “illegal, unproductive” during his weekly press briefing on Friday.
However, the reality behind the scenes is more nuanced: Pakistan secretly supported the strikes in the past, and US officials say privately that key members of the government and military still do. They view the public denunciations of the strikes as a political tool to appease the large number of Pakistanis who disapprove of the missile attacks.
Pakistani officials have asked the US to feed intelligence gathered by drones to Pakistani jets and ground forces so they can target the militants.
Last Saturday, a US drone struck a militant hideout in North Waziristan, killing five allies of a warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur whose forces often attack US troops in Afghanistan. US drones fired a flurry of missiles into the area on Sunday last week, killing 10 suspected militants in two separate strikes. On Tuesday, missiles targeting a vehicle in North Waziristan killed five more suspected militants.
One of the reasons US President Barack Obama increased the number of drone attacks in Pakistan in 2009 was the Pakistani government’s refusal to launch an offensive in North Waziristan.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said Islamabad plans to launch an operation in North Waziristan in the near future targeting the Pakistani Taliban, who have waged a bloody insurgency against Islamabad for years.
Pakistani military officials have said they will slowly increase pressure on North Waziristan, rather than conduct a sweeping offensive in the area, the only one in the tribal region where it has not conducted an offensive.
Analysts have said they doubt Pakistan will target militants in North Waziristan responsible for attacks in Afghanistan because they are not seen as much of a threat to the state. Also, Pakistan has historical links with some of the Afghan militants operating in the area, especially the so-called Haqqani network.