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U.S. drones hit Pakistan militants; Taliban leader hurt

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - U.S. drones attacked militants in northwest Pakistan twice on Wednesday, killing more than 40 fighters, security officials said, while the army said the Taliban chief in Swat had been wounded.

The attacks by the pilotless U.S. aircraft were in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader and al Qaeda ally Baitullah Mehsud.

The Pakistan army is preparing an offensive against Mehsud, who the military says is responsible for 90 percent of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The government said he plotted the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.

The United States, grappling with an intensifying Afghan insurgency, began stepping up attacks by drones on northwestern Pakistani militant enclaves a year ago.

But Pakistan officially objects to the strikes on its soil, saying they violate its sovereignty and undermine its efforts to deal with militancy by inflaming public anger and bolstering support for the militants.

A drone fired several missiles at a militant convoy in the second attack of the day, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

“The Taliban appeared to be shifting to another place when they were hit,” said one of the intelligence agency officials. He and another intelligence official, as well as residents, said at least 40 militants were killed.

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Earlier on Wednesday, U.S. drones fired six missiles into a Pakistani Taliban training camp in another part of South Waziristan, killing six militants, government and intelligence agency officials said.

There were no reports of any “high-value target” being killed in either of the drone attacks.

But a Pakistani military spokesman said the leader of the Taliban in Swat, Fazlullah, had been wounded in an air strike by Pakistani aircraft there on Monday.

“In one of the strikes Fazlullah has been injured,” military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told a briefing, citing “credible information.”

A fiery self-proclaimed Muslim cleric, Fazlullah, has been on the run since the military launched the offensive in the picturesque valley once popular with tourists.

An Afghan National army soldier keeps watch as a U.S. marine helicopter flies overhead in Khan Neshin district of Helmand province July 8, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

U.S. President Barack Obama has made defeating al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan a top priority and Pakistan has a crucial role to play in achieving that.

The United States has announced a reward of $5 million for information leading to Mehsud’s arrest or location, while Pakistan last month posted a reward of 50 million rupees ($615,000) for him.

After a sharp expansion of militant influence in northwest Pakistan, the army went on the offensive two months ago, attacking the militants allied with Mehsud who had taken control of the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad.

U.S. officials, fearful for Pakistan’s stability and the safety of its nuclear arsenal, welcomed the action.

As Pakistan battles the Taliban on its side of the border, thousands of U.S. Marines have launched an offensive against the Afghan Taliban in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.

Abbas said the offensive in Swat had entered its final phase after 158 soldiers had been killed. But no top Taliban leaders have been among the approximately 1,600 militants the army has reported killed, leading to fears the fighters could re-emerge.

Independent casualty estimates are not available.

But Abbas said the Taliban leaders would not make a comeback: “There is absolutely zero possibility of this leadership returning to the valley,” he said.

The fighting has forced nearly 2 million people from their homes. While public backing for the offensive is solid, there is a danger the suffering of the displaced could sap some support.

U.N. Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes visited some of the displaced people and told reporters Pakistan needed to ensure appropriate conditions, especially security, were in place before encouraging people to go home.

Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Zeeshan Haider, Hafiz Wazir and Jason Subler; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton