April 1, 2009 / 5:58 AM / 8 years ago

U.S. expands Pakistani drone-strike zone; 12 dead

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A pilotless U.S. drone fired a missile at a Taliban compound in Pakistan's Orakzai region on Wednesday, killing 12 people in the first such attack in the area, a security official and residents said.

The raid came a day after Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud said his group had carried out an assault on a police training center in the eastern city of Lahore in retaliation for U.S. drone attacks.

The missile hit a compound of a Taliban commander loyal to Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud, and 12 people were killed and 13 wounded.

Hakimullah Mehsud later spoke to Reuters and said six of his fighters were among the dead. He vowed revenge.

"This wasn't a minor thing. The pain of this attack will be felt in Islamabad," he said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

He did not elaborate but said his men would not give up their fight: "Let the Americans use all their drones, we'll fight them on the battlefield."

Another Taliban official who declined to be identified said an Arab militant known as Kaka was also killed in the attack.

The United States, frustrated by an intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan getting support from the Pakistani side of the border, began launching more drone attacks last year.

Since then, more than 30 U.S. strikes have killed about 300 people, including mid-level al Qaeda members, according to reports from Pakistani officials, residents and militants.

Pakistan objects to the strikes. Officials say about one in six of the strikes over the past year caused civilian deaths without killing any militants, and that fuels anti-U.S. sentiment, complicating the military's struggle to subdue violence.

The concentration of strikes in Waziristan was also pushing some militants eastwards, deeper into Pakistan, officials say.

PROTEST

Orakzai has been one of Pakistan's most peaceful Pashtun regions but Taliban are known to have infiltrated the area, as they have done elsewhere in the northwest.

U.S. officials say success in Afghanistan is impossible without tackling militant enclaves in northwest Pakistan, where Taliban battling Western forces rest, regroup and train, and al Qaeda plots violence.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced a review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan last week, vowing to tackle militants in the ungoverned Pakistani border areas.

The New York Times said last month the United States was considering expanding its covert war to Baluchistan, a sprawling province of deserts and jagged mountains on the border of violence-plagued southern Afghanistan.

About 150 clerics and elders from Taliban leader Mehsud's tribe held a protest in the town of Tank, in North West Frontier Province, to condemn the drone strikes.

One cleric, Hassam-ud-din, told the crowd the government approved the U.S. strikes but should stop them immediately.

The government denies reports it has quietly given permission for the strikes and that the drones are launched from a secret air strip in Pakistan.

Early last year, the United States stopped forewarning Pakistan about the strikes because of suspicion some Pakistani agents were tipping off militants they regarded as assets.

Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Simon Cameron-Moore; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Jerry Norton

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