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QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - U.S. assertions that the Afghan Taliban leadership is hiding in and around the Pakistani city of Quetta have raised fears among residents that American missile-firing drone aircraft could launch strikes on the area.
The United States, grappling with an intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan, has carried out 41 drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan this year after 32 such strikes last year, according to a tally of reports from security agents, officials and residents.
Pakistani officials deny that a Taliban leadership council known as the "Quetta shura" is based in the Afghan refugee camps outside the city, capital of Baluchistan province that borders violence-plagued southern Afghanistan.
But as President Barack Obama ponders his options in Afghanistan, some U.S. officials have suggested the pilotless aircraft strikes be expanded from the northwest to Baluchistan.
Most of the drone strikes so far have been on al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in the lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal lands of North and South Waziristan.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official in Baluchistan said international forces in neighboring Afghanistan had been told "categorically" that no such attacks would be tolerated there.
"This is not Waziristan," said the official, who works closely with international forces along the Afghan border.
"We have made it clear to them that they cannot operate here, and this probably is frustrating them, and that is why their officials are making public statements without any proof," said the official who declined to be identified, referring to the U.S. statements about the Quetta shura.
Baluchistan, with a fragile ethnic mix of Baluchis and Pashtuns, is Pakistan's biggest but poorest province despite having the country's largest reserves of natural gas.
Many Baluchis resent what they see as exploitation of the province's resources by richer provinces. Baluch separatist rebels have been fighting a low-level guerrilla war for decades.
Major General Salim Nawaz, inspector general of the Frontier Corps paramilitary force in Baluchistan, said drone strikes would inflame public anger.
"Any foreign element, directly or indirectly, seen operating in Baluchistan, is likely to create a lot of resentment," Nawaz told Reuters. "If such a mistake is made there will be a lot of trouble."
Pakistan officially objects to the drone strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and the civilian casualties they at times inflict inflame public anger.
U.S. officials say the strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to decry the attacks in public.
Despite Pakistani denials of a Taliban leadership presence, Afghan officials are also convinced top Taliban operate out of Baluchistan, as well as other border regions.
Baluch nationalists also say the Taliban, including top leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, are hiding in the area among an estimated 120,000 Afghans, some of whom have lived in Baluchistan since the Soviet occupation of their homeland.
"Mullah Omar and his second- or third-tier leadership are around the area and are protected," said Jehan Zeb Jamaldini, senior vice president of the Baluchistan National Party. "I'm sure the U.S. will attack."
Pashtun shopkeeper Gul Zaman said he did not believe that any Taliban leaders were in Quetta but he feared missile strikes.
"I hope that our government is strong enough to stop it," Zaman said at his cloth shop in one of Quetta's main markets. "I hope Quetta does not become another Waziristan."
Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson