MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - A U.S. drone missile strike on Thursday killed at least 38 suspected militants in a Pakistani tribal region known as a haven for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
There were conflicting accounts about the target of the attack and those killed in the Datta Khel region of North Waziristan. The death toll was one of the highest in a drone missile strike.
The area is a stronghold of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Taliban commander who harbours and sends militants across the border to fight Western forces in Afghanistan.
One official said the missiles targeted a house as elders loyal to Bahadur were trying to mediate between two warring militant groups inside.
Another official said the drone attacked a vehicle in the area that was passing by a house where local tribesmen were holding a meeting, killing them. A tribesman in the area supported his account.
“It wasn’t a militant gathering, but a meeting of tribal elders from Ismail Khan village to sort out some differences over a business deal,” tribesman Zia-ur-Rehman told Reuters.
“One of Bahadur’s commanders, Sharabat Khan, was also present at the meeting as he is also a local elder, but they were discussing business.”
There were conflicting reports about whether Khan had been killed in the attack. It was not immediately known if those in the vehicle were also hit.
The United States has been attacking al Qaeda-linked militants for the past few years in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas using drones, which are a source of worry for the government because civilians casualties inflame public anger and bolster support for the militants.
North Waziristan, where most of the drone attacks have occurred, is the only one of seven Pakistani tribal regions where Pakistan’s army has not yet launched any major operation against the militants.
Washington has in recent months mounted pressure on Pakistan, its nuclear-armed ally, to go after militants in North Waziristan. Pakistan has said it will do so but on its own schedule and when adequate resources are available.
Reporting by Haji Mujtaba and Saud Mehsud; Writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ron Popeski