U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, at least 3 dead

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan Thu Aug 20, 2009 7:43pm EDT

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MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - A suspected U.S. drone fired missiles into Pakistan's North Waziristan region on the Afghan border on Friday, killing at least three people, Pakistani intelligence agency officials said.

The strike on Darpa Kheil village, about two km (one mile) from North Waziristan's main town of Miranshah, was the third such attack by a CIA-operated drone aircraft in Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal areas this month.

Pakistani and U.S. officials believe Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a similar strike in neighboring South Waziristan on August 5, although his men have denied that.

"The attack caused a huge explosion that forced our doors open," said a Reuters reporter in Miranshah.

He said drones were seen flying over the area after the blast.

At least three people had been killed, two Pakistani intelligence agency officials said, citing initial reports.

U.S. ally Pakistan officially objects to the U.S. drone strikes on its soil saying they violate its sovereignty and complicate its efforts to win over the people and isolate the militants in border regions.

Darpa Kheil village is home to a sprawling madrassa, or religious school, set up by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former veteran Afghan militant commander who is also a senior Taliban leader. Haqqani was in the past known to be close to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Pilotless U.S. drone aircraft attacked the complex in September last year, killing 23 people, most of them members of Haqqani's family, but it was not known whether it was hit in Friday's strike.

After the strike, fighting erupted as militants attacked a security force checkpost in the area but there was no word on any casualties, the security officials and residents said.

Haqqani is now elderly and his son, Sirajuddin, is commanding his fighters, U.S. and Pakistani security officials say.

While Mehsud has focused his attacks against Pakistan and its security forces, Haqqani's fighters have concentrated their militant activity in Afghanistan, and are not known for attacks in Pakistan.

Both Pakistani and U.S. officials have said Mehsud was killed in the August 5 attack in his South Waziristan stronghold although neither government has officially confirmed his death.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday "we took out" Mehsud, who was blamed for a wave of bombings across Pakistan, including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

(Reporting by Haji Mujtaba; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Dean Yates)

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