U.S. missile strike kills 11 militants in Pakistan

PARACHINAR, Pakistan Mon Jun 20, 2011 6:56am EDT

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PARACHINAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Suspected U.S. drones fired missiles into Pakistan's Kurram region on Monday, killing at least 11 militants, nine of them from a major Afghan militant group fighting Western forces in Afghanistan, local officials said.

U.S. forces have intensified missile strikes by remotely-controlled drones in Pakistan's border regions since the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. SEALs in the country last month.

Seventy-seven militants have been killed in missile strikes by U.S. drones this month, according to a Reuters tally based on statements from intelligence officials.

Most of these strikes focused on Waziristan -- a major al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary -- but Monday's attack targeted militants in Kurram, another tribal region north of Waziristan.

An intelligence official in Kurram said the four missiles fired by drones targeted two militant compounds and a vehicle in the Khardand area, a stronghold of Fazal Saeed, a local militant commander.

Saeed is closely linked to the Haqqani network -- one of the most feared Afghan militant groups fighting U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan, officials say.

"Eleven militants were killed. Nine of them were Afghans and believed to be linked to the Haqqani group," a second intelligence official said. The remaining militants were said to be Pakistanis.

HOLED UP

Kurram is an unusual target and could mark a further expansion of the U.S. campaign against militants holed up in North and South Waziristan.

North Waziristan is the major base for the Haqqani network and security officials say many of its fighters and their local allies are believed to have fled to Kurram. The militants cut a deal with Shi'ite Muslim tribesmen last year in Kurram and neighboring tribal regions amid speculation that Pakistan's army might launch an offensive in North Waziristan.

Pakistan has long publicly opposed U.S. drone strikes, saying they complicate Islamabad's efforts to win over the people and isolate the militants in border regions.

But Washington sees them as an effective tool to stem cross-border attacks by militants on foreign forces in Afghanistan.

In Miranshah in North Waziristan, about 1,500 tribesmen staged a general strike to protest against the drone attacks. They threatened to take up arms against the Pakistani army if they continued.

"We know this is happening under a secret deal with Pakistan. The soldiers based in Miranshah and elsewhere in North Waziristan are American agents," a cleric, Mohammad Alam, told a rally in Miranshah.

"If these drones strikes continue, we want to send a message from this stage that nobody will hesitate to fight these soldiers."

Militants in North Waziristan have agreed not to attack security forces there in return for the freedom to operate inside Afghanistan from their bases.

If they scrap the deal, it could further destabilize Pakistan, already under pressure from the United States and its allies to pursue militants after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani officials say, however, that the military is already overstretched. It also wants a commitment from the United States that its troops will secure its side of the border. Otherwise, it says, its own troops and people become vulnerable to attack by militants based on the Afghan side.

(Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Haji Mujtaba; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ron Popeski)

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