MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, Jun (Reuters) - Missile attacks by suspected U.S. drone aircraft killed at least 22 militants in Pakistan’s Waziristan region on Wednesday, intelligence officials said, as the U.S. military steps up pressure on remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban sheltered there.
The strikes in the ethnic Pashtun region have escalated since Pakistani officials said a top militant linked to al Qaeda, Ilyas Kashmiri, was killed in one such attack on Friday, though U.S. officials have expressed scepticism over the reports of his death.
At least 17 militants were killed in two missile strikes by CIA-operated remotely-piloted aircraft in the region on Monday.
In the latest strikes, two missiles hit a fortress-like militant compound in Shawal area in the North Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border.
Shortly afterwards, two more missiles were fired at a vehicle suspected to be carrying militants in a village in South Waziristan about three kilometres away from the site of the first strike.
“Eighteen militants, including foreigners, were killed in the compound attack,” a local intelligence official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
He said four militants were killed in the strike on the vehicle.
Another intelligence official in the region said the militants had cordoned off the area and no-one was allowed to visit the sites of the attacks.
The latest series of strikes comes after Pakistan said that Islamabad and Washington had agreed to resume joint intelligence operations, frozen since January, in a first step towards rebuilding their trust.
Intelligence cooperation between the two countries suffered a major setback following the arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis for shooting to death two Pakistanis. Davis was finally released after the paying of monetary compensation to the heirs of slain people under an Islamic law prevalent in Pakistan.
Ties worsened further after the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. SEALs in a secret raid in Pakistani garrison town last month which stoked suspicion that elements in Pakistan had sheltered the al Qaeda leader.
Islamabad has angrily denied those accusations and says it has been at the frontline of the war on al Qaeda.
Washington on the other hand, has urged Pakistan to take a firmer stand against militant groups including those it has nurtured in the past to advance its interests in Afghanistan and India.
It has repeatedly urged Pakistan to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, the main base of the Haqqani network which has long standing ties to Pakistan’s military spy agency.
Most of the U.S. drone strikes in the past year were focussed on North Waziristan and analysts say the stepped-up attacks in South Waziristan in recent days might signal that the CIA identified high-value al Qaeda or Taliban targets in the region.
A Pakistani security official on Monday said he believed the drone strikes escalated in South Waziristan because speculation that the Pakistan army planned to mount an offensive in North Waziristan prompted militants to head south.
Ilyas Kashmiri, labelled as a “specially designated global terrorist” by the U.S. State Department was high on a list Washington gave to Pakistan of militants it wanted captured or killed after bin Laden’s death, a Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity.
Pakistani government and security officials, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik, said Kashmiri was killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan on Friday.
But U.S. officials familiar with counterterrorism activities in the region said they were unable to confirm Kashmiri’s death. It was more likely than not, they said, that the militant leader was still alive.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, also raised doubts about Kashmiri’s death, saying on ABC News on Monday: “I’m not sure that’s been confirmed.”
Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani