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US missile strike death toll reaches 21

world Updated: Aug 22, 2009 13:38 IST

AP
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Nine more bodies were pulled from the rubble of houses hit by a suspected US missile strike targeting a Taliban commander in northwestern Pakistan, bringing the total number of dead to 21 on Saturday.

The airstrike in North Waziristan on Friday near the Afghan border was aimed at Siraj Haqqani, a Taliban commander with suspected close ties to al-Qaida who is blamed for masterminding ambushes on American troops in Afghanistan. It was unclear whether he was among the dead, intelligence officials said. Local tribal elder Safdar Khan said those killed included six children.

Three intelligence officials confirmed the death toll, although they did not say whether any children were among the casualties. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.

Haqqani is known to have visited the house that was targeted, the officials said. Khan did not specify whether Haqqani was there at the time.

The attack was the latest by unmanned aircraft in northwestern Pakistan, and suggests a return to the original aim of the covert program to kill al-Qaida and Taliban leaders who use the lawless region as a base to plot attacks. A drone apparently killed Pakistan's most-wanted militant, Baitullah Mehsud, on August 5.

Friday's strike was the third in three weeks in Pakistan, which officially protests the drone assaults as a violation of its sovereignty. The United States is believed to have launched more than 40 such attacks in the northwest since last year.

The missile hit a housing compound in the village of Dande Darpa Khel, four intelligence officers said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. None of the dead were identified, but the officers said local informants told them all those in the compound were Afghans.

Dande Darpa Khel is the Pakistani stronghold of Haqqani, who operates on both sides of the border and has a powerful network in eastern Afghanistan. He has a large Islamic school in the village that was hit by a suspected US missile in October 2008, killing about 20 people.

Siraj is the son of senior Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was supported by US and Pakistani aid when he fought in the 1980s against Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. Now, American commanders count him as a dangerous foe.

Father and son are alleged to have close connections to al-Qaida and to have helped funnel foreign Islamist fighters into Afghanistan to fight NATO troops.

The Haqqanis have been linked to an attempt to kill Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a suicide attack on a hotel in Kabul, both last year. Haqqani network operatives also target U.S. forces in Afghanistan's eastern Khost province with ambushes and roadside bombs.

Pakistan's border region is remote, mountainous and has little government or military control. Al-Qaida's top leaders, including Osama bin Laden, are believed to be hiding in the area and militants move freely across the border.

The U.S. occasionally fired missiles into the region beginning in 2006, but dramatically stepped up the attacks last year. The missiles are fired from CIA-operated drones believed to be launched from across the border in Afghanistan, or from secret bases inside Pakistan. US officials rarely acknowledge the airstrikes. Separately, Pakistani paramilitary troops fighting insurgents along Afghan border said they killed six militants in an operation in northwest Pakistan.

The paramilitary Frontier Corps said in a statement the operation was conducted in the Mohmand tribal region, where Pakistani forces caught a top Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Umar, on Tuesday.