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U.S. drone strikes kill 14 militants in Pakistan

Two U.S. drone attacks killed 14 militants in Pakistan Saturday, intelligence officials said, after recent NATO incursions raised tensions with the key regional ally.
/ Source: news services

Two U.S. drone attacks killed 14 militants in Pakistan on Saturday, intelligence officials said, after recent NATO incursions raised tensions with an ally Washington needs in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

The United States has widened pilotless drone aircraft missile strikes against al Qaida-linked militants in Pakistan's northwest, and including Saturday's attacks, there have been 23 in September, the highest number in a single month on record.

Angered by repeated incursions by NATO helicopters over the past week, Pakistan blocked a supply route for coalition troops in Afghanistan after one such strike killed three Pakistani soldiers on Thursday in the northwestern Kurram region.

A large number of Arab, Chechan and Central Asian insurgents have taken shelter with Pakistani militants in the lawless tribal regions on the Afghan border after fleeing the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in late 2001.

On Saturday, two drone attacks within hours of each other killed 14 militants in Datta Khel town in North Waziristan tribal region along the Afghan border, intelligence officials said.

"The drone aircraft targeted two houses in the same region, killing a total of 14 militants, including at least six foreigners," one intelligence official said without elaborating.

In one of the attacks, four suspected U.S. missiles struck a house in Datta Khel village in the North Waziristan tribal region, Pakistani intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record to the media.

Datta Khel has been the site of several such attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida fighters and their local supporters who are accused of targeting NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Over the past five weeks, the U.S. is suspected of launching at least 22 missile strikes in Pakistani territory, an unprecedented number. Western officials say some of the CIA-controlled, drone-fired strikes have been aimed at disrupting a terror plot against European cities.

U.S. officials rarely discuss the covert program, but have described it in the past as a highly successful tool that has killed some top militant leaders.

Public outrage
Pakistan, while formally opposing the missile strikes, is believed to secretly provide intelligence for them. Polls show deep opposition among Pakistani citizens to the strikes, along with a belief that they kill large numbers of civilians.

Public outrage has also risen over the recent NATO incursions. On Thursday, two NATO helicopters crossed into the Kurram tribal region and killed three Pakistani paramilitary soldiers who fired warning shots at them from a border post.

On Saturday, some 150 trucks were still waiting for Pakistan to reopen the border crossing at Torkham so they could deliver their supplies to Western troops in Afghanistan.

But Pakistan has shown no sign it plans to allow the trucks to leave its territory, despite the potential strain a lengthy closure would have on its relationship with the U.S., which provides it with billions of dollars in military and other aid.

A second, smaller border crossing in the southwestern town of Chaman remains open, but Torkham, in the northwest, is considered much more important.

Its closure has coincided with attacks on NATO supply trucks elsewhere in the country, including the burning of some 30 oil tankers early Friday by suspected militants in southern Pakistan's Sindh province.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azzam Tariq told The Associated Press that his organization was behind the assault in the Shikarpur area and threatened more attacks — including ones inside the United States.

Taliban threat
"We ask the government of Pakistan to cut all the supply routes for NATO, otherwise we will continue targeting NATO's fuel trucks and containers," he told AP by phone.

"We condemn the NATO attack on Pakistani forces in Kurram, and this attack proves that Christians and Jews cannot be our friends, and this is what Islam tells us. We will avenge this NATO attack by targeting America. We will carry out attacks inside America," he added.

The Pakistani Taliban is strongest in the northwest, especially in the tribal belt, but has ties to other militant groups throughout the country. If it played a role in the attack on the NATO oil tankers, it might have relied on foot soldiers from militant groups based in Sindh.

Also Saturday, gunmen killed a moderate Islamic scholar who was the vice chancellor of Swat University and his assistant, police said.

Swat has been the focus of a Pakistani army offensive against the Taliban, and in recent months, several targeted killings of prominent people from the district have raised fears that Islamist militants are trying to make a comeback.

The scholar, Farooq Khan, also worked as a psychiatrist. The gunmen killed him and his assistant at his clinic in the northwest city of Mardan, police official Zahoor Khan said. Farooq Khan was also a member of a committee looking into what to do with a seminary once run by Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, whose whereabouts are unknown.