DAMADOLA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Angry residents of a Pakistani village on the Afghan border stopped government officials on Thursday from approaching the ruins of a house struck by missiles suspected to have been fired by a U.S. drone.
Eighteen people including foreign militants were killed when two missiles hit a house in the village of Damadola in the Bajaur tribal region, where Islamist militants have been known to operate, on Wednesday evening, a security official said.
A spokesman for Pakistani Taliban militants said the strike was aimed at derailing peace talks with the new government.
A senior government official said the strike had apparently targeted a mid-level, Arab al Qaeda member, who had been killed.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, asked about an attack apparently carried out by the United States, said: “I strongly condemn this. It’s absolutely wrong. It’s unfair. They should not have done this action.”
“Several innocent people have been killed. We condemn it,” Gilani said, according to a transcript of an interview with Pakistan’s ARY OneWorld Television to be broadcast later on Thursday.
The strike was the first since the new government was formed about six weeks ago but the fourth this year.
Neither U.S. nor Pakistani authorities officially confirm U.S. missile attacks on Pakistani territory, which would be an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty and are unpopular with many Pakistanis who oppose the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.
A Pakistani military spokesman said there had been a blast but the military had not determined the cause.
In January 2006, a CIA-operated drone Predator aircraft fired missiles at a house in Damadola in the belief al Qaeda leader bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahri, was visiting.
He was not there and at least 18 people died in the strike, several of them believed to have been al Qaeda members.
Earlier this year, U.S.-controlled Predator aircraft struck at least three sites used by al Qaeda operatives in northwest Pakistan, killing dozens of suspected militants.
In Wednesday’s strike, the house, which residents said belonged to an ethnic Pashtun tribesman, and an adjoining mosque were almost completely destroyed.
Crowds gathered at the scene and a district government official said angry villagers had stopped and turned away his men who had tried to approach.
Villagers showed a reporter scraps of metal that they said came from a missile and blood stains.
“It’s barbaric,” said villager Rehmatullah Khan.
Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for Taliban militants based in Pakistan, said four of those killed were Taliban fighters and all the dead were Pakistani. There were not believed to be any prominent militants among the dead.
Allies of staunch U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf were defeated in a February election and the new government has begun negotiating with the aim of getting Pakistani militants to end a wave of attacks.
Taliban spokesman Omar said the U.S. missile strike was aimed at scuppering the peace talks with the government.
“They don’t want peace in Pakistan and that’s why they are doing it but we’ll continue the talks,” Omar said.
Pakistan’s Western allies say previous peace pacts merely gave the militants a free hand to regroup and plot violence in Afghanistan and beyond.
The Washington Post reported in March that the United States had escalated air strikes against al Qaeda fighters operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas fearing that support from Islamabad may slip away as Musharraf’s power ebbed.
Many al Qaeda members, including Uzbeks and Arabs, and Taliban militants took refuge in North and South Waziristan, as well as in other areas on the Pakistani side of the border after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.
Bin Laden is believed to be hiding somewhere along the border.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Zeeshan Haider, Simon Cameron-Moore in Islamabad; Writing by Robert Birsel