By SALMAN MASOOD and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH, The New York Times, July 7, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Two missiles, believed to be from a remotely piloted aircraft, struck a militant base Tuesday in the South Waziristan tribal region, according to intelligence officials and residents reached by telephone. At least 16 people, including 3 foreigners, were reported killed.
An intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said three Uzbek militants were killed along with 13 local Taliban militants.
The semiautonomous North and South Waziristan tribal regions, straddling the border with Afghanistan, are considered to be strongholds of Taliban militants, who have established several training camps and hide-outs in the mountainous terrain. Arab, Uzbek and Chechen militants have also found a haven in these regions, and most of the suicide attacks inside the Pakistani heartland have been planned and coordinated by the militants in the area.
Tuesday’s drone attack struck a Taliban base in Zangara, a remote village in South Waziristan that has been struck by at least two other drone attacks. The village is a considered a stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban commander who has orchestrated a string of deadly suicide attacks across Pakistan in recent years. Mr. Mehsud’s sub-tribe, the Shabi Khel, is based in the area, and his home village, Makeen, is nearby. “The attack was very precise and accurate,” a resident reached by telephone said.
Six to seven rooms of the militants’ compound were totally destroyed in the attack, which took place at midday, an intelligence official said.
The increased aerial strikes come as Pakistani military is gearing up for an ambitious offensive against Mr. Mehsud and his fighters, who number in the thousands. The mountainous region where they are entrenched is considered one of the most difficult terrains for conventional warfare.
American drone strikes have recently focused on Mr. Mehsud, and he had a close call late last month when an aerial strike struck a village shortly after he had left a funeral.
Publicly, Pakistani officials have been critical of the drone strikes, citing them as a breach of the country’s sovereignty. But privately, Pakistani officials acknowledge the utility of such attacks, especially when militants are targeted with few civilian casualties.
The Pakistani government has increasingly demanded that its forces be given the ability to conduct their own drone strikes. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph published in Britain on July 6, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan reiterated the demand. “My position is that I have always asked for possession of the drone; I want the Pakistani flag on it,” Mr. Zardari told the paper.
Opposition politicians, on the other hand, vociferously oppose drone strikes and see them as a major cause of public dissatisfaction with the United States.