ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Violence rocked Pakistan on Saturday, with a pilotless U.S. drone aircraft killing 13 people including militants in the northwest and a suicide bomber killing eight soldiers in the capital Islamabad.
Pakistan is crucial to U.S. efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan and U.S. President Barack Obama said the release of additional U.S. aid to the nuclear-armed country would depend on how it tackled terrorism.
With the Afghan insurgency intensifying, the United States began launching more drone strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban militants on the Pakistani side of the border last year.
Since then, more than 30 U.S. strikes have killed about 350 people, including mid-level al Qaeda members, according to reports from Pakistani officials, residents and militants.
Pakistan calls the strikes violations of its sovereignty and says the civilian casualties they inevitably cause inflame anti-U.S. sentiment, complicating its effort to fight militancy.
The attack on Saturday was in North Waziristan, a stronghold of al Qaeda and Taliban militants on the Afghan border about 35 km (20 miles) west of the region’s main town of Miranshah.
“The missile hit a house where some ‘guests’ were staying,” one intelligence agency official said, referring to foreign militants.
“We have information that 13 people were killed including some guests.”
Hours later, a suicide bomber killed eight paramilitary troops in an attack on their post in central Islamabad. Five were wounded.
Pakistani Taliban militants have threatened in recent days to launch attacks in the capital, in Afghanistan and in the United States in retaliation for the drone attacks.
Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud claimed on Saturday responsibility for a shooting at a U.S. immigration center in New York state in which a gunman killed 13 people. Mehsud said it was revenge for the drone attacks.
U.S. officials ruled out the claim and Pakistani security analysts dismissed it as a publicity stunt.
Separately, militants fighting for the independence of gas-rich Baluchistan province released an American U.N. refugee official they kidnapped two months ago.
Hours after the drone strike, a suicide bomber was killed as he approached a military convoy near Miranshah. His explosives went off, killing three passersby, witnesses and a hospital official said.
Many al Qaeda and Taliban militants fled to North Waziristan and other northwestern Pakistani border regions after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks on the United States.
From the remote ethnic Pashtun tribal lands that have never been truly ruled by any Pakistani government, militants have orchestrated the Afghan war and plotted violence beyond.
U.S. commanders say the militant enclaves have to be eliminated, and Obama has said the United States will tackle them if Pakistan will not or cannot.
Pakistani officials say civilian deaths in drone strikes fuel anti-U.S. sentiment, complicating the military’s struggle to subdue violence. The concentration of strikes in Waziristan is also pushing militants deeper into Pakistan.
Obama, speaking at the end of a NATO summit in France, said Pakistan must have the capacity to tackle al Qaeda.
“I informed our allies that despite difficult circumstances we are going to put more money into Pakistan, conditional on action to meet the terrorist threat,” he told a news conference.
“We want to bring all of our diplomatic and development skills to bear toward strengthening Pakistan, in part because they have to have the capacity to take on al Qaeda within their borders.”
President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and his year-old civilian government are also struggling to revive a flagging economy.
The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, is due in Pakistan in coming days.
Last month the United States announced a $5 million reward for information leaded to Pakistani Taliban leader Mehsud’s location or arrest.
On Tuesday he said his group had carried out a bloody assault on a police training center in Lahore in retaliation for drone attacks.
Security analysts say Mehsud does not have the capacity to organize attacks in the United States by himself but is part of an al Qaeda-led network that does have global reach.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Haji Mujtaba and Gul Yousafzai