WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) - A U.S. missile attack killed at least 25 al Qaeda-linked militants in a Pakistani tribal region on Saturday, security and Taliban officials said, the highest death toll of militants in a single such strike.
The strike by pilotless drones in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border was the third such attack since U.S. President Barack Obama took office last month and could ignite fresh popular anger in Pakistan over the cross-border raids from Afghanistan.
The Taliban official said those killed were mostly Uzbek fighters.
“Our people have informed us that at least 25 people were killed. It could be more,” the official told Reuters. A resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said 25 to 30 people were killed.
A senior security official said there appeared to be no senior al Qaeda figure among the dead.
Missiles hit a sprawling house used by the militants as a training camp in the Zangari area in the South Waziristan region. Zangari is around 70 km (45 miles) north of the region’s main town of Wana.
“Around 50 to 60 mujahideen have been living there for about a week. All of them were Uzbeks,” the Taliban official added.
Intelligence officials confirmed the incident.
The Taliban official said the militants had set up tents in the lawns of the fortress-like house and were undergoing training there when the missiles hit.
The militants have cordoned off the area and no one was allowed near the site of the strike, an intelligence official said.
Waziristan is the power base of Baituallah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and an al Qaeda ally, who is also accused of involvement in the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
Frustrated over what it sees as Pakistan’s failure to stem the flow of al Qaeda and Taliban militants from its lawless tribal regions into Afghanistan, the United States stepped up cross-border attacks last year.
U.S. drones carried out about 30 missile attacks on suspected militants in 2008, according to a Reuters tally, more than half after the beginning of September.
The attacks killed more than 220 people, including foreign militants, according to a tally of reports from Pakistani intelligence agents, district government officials and residents.
Pakistan does not officially confirm the strikes but has said they violate the country’s sovereignty and increase resentment toward the Pakistani government and the United States.
Obama said this week there was no doubt terrorists were operating in safe havens in the tribal regions of Pakistan, and the United States wanted to make sure Islamabad was a strong ally in fighting that threat.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower who was elected to office last year, told CBS in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday that the Taliban had established itself across a large part of Pakistan, forcing the country to fight a war that was about Pakistan’s own survival.
Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Charles Dick