Pakistan missile strike kills 12 in new violence

Twelve suspected militants were killed by a missile strike in Pakistan’s troubled tribal belt, hours after gunmen held 300 children hostage at a nearby school, officials said on Tuesday.

Separately, a Pakistani soldier was killed and five others injured in the latest clashes between security forces and Islamist insurgents in the lawless borderlands with Afghanistan, the army said.

The missile hit a house on Monday night in the North Waziristan tribal district bordering Afghanistan, where thousands of Pakistani troops are battling al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked fighters.

Intelligence officials said the dead were pro-Taliban militants, but residents said they were tribesmen staying at the house of a local elder in Khushali Tari Khel, a village on the outskirts of the town of Mir Ali.

“A missile came from an unknown direction on Monday night and hit the house, after which 12 people have died,” a local administration official said.

The Pakistani army was not immediately available for comment.

“The identities of the dead are not ascertained but we had reports that suspected them of being linked to the Taliban,” an intelligence official said.

It was not clear who fired the missile but several previous attacks in the area have been attributed to United States-led coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is loath to admit any US military action on its territory, given that President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly rejected US offers for joint operations in Pakistan’s troubled borderlands.

Washington and other Western allies are increasingly concerned by unrest and extremist violence in Pakistan following the assassination last month of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf said during a visit to London on Monday that a tough stance on extremism was necessary because of incidents like the mass hostage-taking at the school.

The incident ended peacefully late on Monday when the gunmen released their captives from the school and fled into North Waziristan.

Officials did not say if there was any connection between the missile strike and the school siege.

Missile attacks have claimed the lives of several militants in Pakistan. A US Predator drone targeted al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in January 2006, killing several rebels but missing him.

In December 2005, Egyptian al-Qaeda explosives specialist Hamza Rabia was killed in a blast in North Waziristan. Residents said it was a missile strike but the military insisted he was killed by one of his own bombs.

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring tribal region of South Waziristan, the army said a soldier was killed in heavy fighting at Shishamwan village early on Tuesday.

Militant casualties “could not be ascertained”, an army statement said.

Clashes in the same region on Monday also claimed the life of a soldier.

South Waziristan is the stronghold of shadowy tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who has been accused by Pakistan and the US Central Intelligence Agency of masterminding Bhutto’s assassination on December 27.

He denies any involvement.

Officials also said that five soldiers were wounded in rocket attacks in North Waziristan overnight. — AFP

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