ISLAMABAD — Suspected U.S. missiles killed seven people in a Pakistani Taliban stronghold Sunday, officials said, while an attack on a military convoy and a cleric's two-week deadline for the creation of Islamic courts rattled peace talks with militants elsewhere in the country's northwest.
The missile strike underscored the Obama administration's unwillingness to abandon a Bush-era tactic said to have killed several key al-Qaida figures, despite persistent Pakistani protests. The Muslim nation has used both peace pacts and military offensives to deal with insurgents along its border with Afghanistan, and it warns that the missile attacks dent civilian support for its actions.
The missiles landed in Murghiban village in the South Waziristan tribal region and also wounded three people, two Pakistani intelligence officials said. At least four of the dead were believed to be foreign militants, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Drones seen in the air
They said drones believed to be used by the U.S. were seen in the air ahead of the strike and that Taliban fighters surrounded the damaged stronghold afterward. The compound was allegedly a militant training facility, the officials said, citing field informants.
The U.S. has dramatically stepped up its missile attacks on al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Pakistan's northwest since mid-2008, a policy that has not changed under new President Barack Obama. Pakistan insists the strikes inflame anti-American sentiment and often kill civilians, though many analysts speculate the two countries have a secret deal allowing them.
Pakistan has also turned to peace talks to deal with some insurgent groups, much to Washington's consternation.
Last month, Pakistan agreed to implement Islamic law in the Swat Valley, a former tourist haven where militants have gained tremendous sway. The Swat Taliban and the military also agreed to a cease-fire after months of fighting that has killed hundreds and displaced up to one-third of the valley's 1.5 million residents.
Swat to become Taliban sanctuary?
American and European officials worry that the talks could turn Swat into a sanctuary for Taliban fighters. Swat is less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. It also is near tribal regions where al-Qaida and the Taliban have strongholds.
The provincial government in northwestern Pakistan made the pledge to establish Islamic courts in Swat and surrounding areas to Sufi Muhammad, a pro-Taliban cleric who agreed to then negotiate with the Swat Taliban, who are headed by his son-in-law. He himself heads a group that has long pushed for Islamic law in parts of the northwest.
He said Sunday that it did not appear the government was holding up its end of the bargain.
"I'm not seeing any practical steps for the implementation of the peace agreement, except for ministers visiting Swat and uttering words," the cleric told reporters in the valley's main city of Mingora.
Protests if deadline not met
Muhammad set a March 15 deadline for the Islamic courts to start running. He also said the Taliban and the government should release each other's prisoners by the same date and that both sides should abide by an agreement that includes no public displays of weapons.
Muhammad said if the deadline was not met, his followers would stage peaceful protests throughout the region.
A senior government official, Syed Mohammad Javed, met Muhammad shortly afterward and told The Associated Press that they discussed appointing religiously trained judges "soon." He added that prisoner negotiations were also ongoing.
Meanwhile Sunday, a security convoy carrying a sick soldier was attacked with small arms fire and roadside bombs in the Kabal area of Swat, according to a military statement that said two soldiers were wounded. It said the attack violated the cease-fire.
A spokesman for Muhammad said the agreement stipulates that security forces tell his group about their movements in advance.
"We did not have any information about this convoy," Ameer Izzat Khan said. "That is why this incident took place."
Past peace deals have failed
Past peace deals with militants in Pakistan — including one in Swat last year — have failed, giving the extremists time to regroup. Western officials have raised this point in questioning whether Pakistan is in effect ceding Swat to the militants.
But the government insists it is merely responding to longtime local demands for a more efficient justice system. Officials say their pledge on Islamic law will not include harsh interpretations adhered to by many Taliban.
Pakistan has taken a more forceful approach to al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in parts of its semiautonomous northwestern tribal regions.
On Saturday, Pakistani military commanders said they had defeated the militants in the Bajur tribal region and were close to victory in the neighboring Mohmand tribal area. The U.S. has praised those military offensives, saying they have helped pressure militants who use Pakistan as a base to plan attacks on American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
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