MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - Missiles fired by U.S. drones killed 23 people, mostly relatives of a Taliban commander close to Osama bin Laden, in a region of Pakistan near the Afghan border on Monday, witnesses and intelligence officials said.
The missiles targeted a sprawling complex comprising a house and a religious school, or madrasa, founded by veteran Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani near Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan tribal region.
Ten militants were killed in the strike.
“There were two drones and they fired three missiles,” said a resident of Dandi Darpakheil, the village which was hit.
Those killed included one of the several wives of Haqqani, his sister-in-law, a sister, two nieces, eight grandchildren and a male relative. A son-in-law of Haqqani was wounded.
A senior intelligence official said the militants killed were Pakistani and Afghan Taliban but locals said five of them were low-ranking al Qaeda operatives, including three Arabs.
Haqqani is a veteran of the U.S.-backed Afghan war against the Soviet invasion in the 1970s and 1980s, and his extended family had been living in North Waziristan since then. Haqqani’s links with bin Laden go back to the late 1980s.
Taliban sources say he is in ill-health and his son, Sirajuddin, has been leading the Haqqani group. An intelligence official said the militants killed belonged to this faction.
One of Haqqani’s younger sons told Reuters his father and Sirajuddin were in Afghanistan when the attack took place.
Fifteen to 20 wounded people, most of them women and children, were taken to hospital in Miranshah, doctors said.
Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said an incident had taken place and its cause was being ascertained.
Haqqani has had close links with Pakistani intelligence, notably the military Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The New York Times reported in July that the U.S. CIA had given Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani evidence of the ISI’s involvement with Haqqani, along with evidence of ISI connections to a suicide bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed nearly 60 people on July 7.
Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, who is due to be sworn in on Tuesday, has vowed to defeat the Taliban and support the West’s mission in Afghanistan.
But the U.S.-led campaigns against al Qaeda and the Taliban are hugely unpopular among Pakistanis and Zardari’s coalition, which forced former army chief President Pervez Musharraf to resign last month, has to pay more heed to public opinion than Musharraf did.
U.S.-led forces have stepped up cross-border attacks against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistani tribal areas.
Helicopter-borne commandos carried out a ground assault in South Waziristan last week, the first known incursion into Pakistan by U.S. troops since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, killing 20 people, including women and children.
A day later, four Islamist militants were killed and five wounded in a suspected U.S. drone attack in North Waziristan.
Security officials said five people were killed in another drone attack on Friday, but the Pakistan military denied it.
The U.S. commando raid and repeated territorial violations aroused anger in Pakistan, prompting the government to partially block supply lines to Western forces in landlocked Afghanistan.
Rehman Malik, who advises the prime minister on Interior Ministry issues, said on Monday the road was unblocked after a few hours, and that it had only been shut for security reasons, contrary to comments by the defence minister that it was a response to the violations.
Separately, the army killed 10 militants in clashes in the northwestern Swat Valley on Sunday night, while police arrested a teenaged suicide bomber who had planned to attack army installations in the northwestern garrison town of Nowshera.
Thirty people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack in the nearby city of Peshawar on Saturday.
Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani, Syed Salahuddin and Kamran Haider; Writing by Zeeshan Haider