Pakistani Taliban shrug off U.S. missile strikes

ARGHANJO, Pakistan Wed Nov 26, 2008 11:38am EST

Tribesmen gather at a site of a missile attack on the outskirts of Miranshah, near the Afghan border, October 12, 2008. REUTERS/Haji Mujtaba

Tribesmen gather at a site of a missile attack on the outskirts of Miranshah, near the Afghan border, October 12, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Haji Mujtaba

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ARGHANJO, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani Taliban commander vowed on Wednesday to keep up cross-border attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan despite stepped up U.S. missile strikes by pilotless drones on militants in Pakistan.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have carried out at least 26 air strikes by unmanned aircraft on militant targets in northwest Pakistan this year, according to a Reuters tally, more than half since the start of September.

At the same time, Pakistani security forces have launched major operations against militants in parts of the ethnic Pashtun tribal belt along the Afghan border.

But Hakeemullah Mehsud, a deputy to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, shrugged off both the U.S. missile strikes and the Pakistani army offensive, saying the Taliban would press on with their "jihad," or Muslim holy war, in Afghanistan.

"We are constantly sending our fighters into Afghanistan and our operations are continuing there," Hakeemullah told a group of journalists on a rare trip to a Taliban stronghold in the Orakzai tribal region, south of the city of Peshawar.

The U.S. drone strikes were doomed to fail, he said.

"They have carried out drone attacks in Afghanistan also but they failed to dampen our spirit. Eventually we will win."

Security has deteriorated sharply in both Pakistan and Afghanistan seven years after U.S. soldiers and their Afghan allies drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in the weeks following the September 11 attacks on the United States.

The violence has raised grave doubts about the success of international efforts to bring peace and stability to Pakistan while also raising fears for the prospects of nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is also beset by economic problems.

THREAT TO SUPPLY CONVOYS

Many al Qaeda members and Taliban fled to Pakistan's lawless tribal belt on the border from where they have been orchestrating insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Apparently frustrated by Pakistan's inability to tackle the militants, and alarmed by deteriorating Afghan security, the United States has ramped up attacks with missile-firing pilotless drones on militants in Pakistan.

Pakistan has complained to the United States over the strikes saying they undermine its efforts to combat militants but Washington has shrugged off the protests.

Hakeemullah also threatened to step up attacks on vital supplies for Western forces in landlocked Afghanistan trucked from a Pakistani port through the Khyber Pass.

"We will continue attacks on their convoys until they are stopped," said 32-year-old militant commander as his guards stood by with rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The guards, their faces covered with black scarves, wore white head bands inscribed with the Muslim expression of faith: "There is no god but Allah."

Hakeemullah rejected a Pakistani government demand for the militants to lay down their arms as a condition for talks.

"These are the swords of (the Prophet) Mohammad and they can never be surrendered."

He also justified attacks on pro-government tribal leaders and members of "lashkars," or traditional tribal militias being raised to drive out militants, calling them "hypocrites."

(Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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