United States missile strikes killed dozens of people in a Pakistani tribal area controlled by Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, where the army is preparing an assault, officials said on Wednesday.
Drone aircraft, which are only deployed by US forces in the region, hit Taliban positions on Tuesday then struck again as hundreds of people gathered for a funeral in Mehsud’s northwest tribal stronghold of South Waziristan.
But with the mountainous area on the Afghan border out of reach of government forces, security officials and Taliban militants have been giving widely differing death tolls, with some saying up to 65 people were killed.
“We have initial reports that are not confirmed but the casualties are somewhere between 20 to 30,” military spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Islamabad.
A senior government official in the northwest city of Peshawar said some important Taliban commanders may be among the dead.
“Reports we received from the area said that 50 to 60 people, mostly militants, were killed in the drone attack,” the official said.
Pakistan’s security forces are readying for a full-scale onslaught against Mehsud in the northwest tribal belt, where Washington alleges al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels are holed up, plotting attacks on Western targets.
On Tuesday the military was dealt a blow when a potential ally in the region — rising tribal leader and Mehsud rival Qari Zainuddin — was assassinated in a killing claimed by Mehsud’s network.
Pakistani fighter jets have been pounding South Waziristan ahead of an offensive in the rugged area, then on Tuesday one of the most deadly in a string of US missile attacks hit the region.
The first strike by an unmanned drone killed six militants in Shubi Khel, a remote area under the control of Mehsud’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan about 65km north of the main district town of Wana.
As mourners gathered for funeral prayers, another drone unloaded three more missiles into the crowd, officials and residents said.
“After the prayers ended people were asking each other to leave the area as drones were hovering,” Mohammad Saeed Khan (35), who lost his right leg in the attack, told AFP from Miranshah hospital in North Waziristan.
“First two drones fired two missiles, it created a havoc, there was smoke and dust everywhere. Injured people were crying and asking for help … they fired the third missile after a minute, and I fell on the ground.”
Wali Ur Rehman, a deputy of Mehsud, called an AFP reporter in Peshawar and claimed that 65 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the strikes.
“One of our commanders Billal was also martyred. We buried them all in three different graves as some of the bodies were badly mutilated,” he said.
“Our leadership is safe,” he said from an unknown location.
Rehman also claimed responsibility for the killing of Zainuddin, saying the group assassinated him “on the orders of Baitullah”.
“Anyone who works against us will face the same fate,” he added,
Analysts had said that the military would likely try to fan rivalries among the Mehsud tribe to gain allies before any assault in the tribal belt.
They were reportedly trying to woo Zainuddin, who opposed Mehsud’s use of suicide bombings that targeted civilians.
Troops in nuclear-armed Pakistan are wrapping up a two-month battle to dislodge Taliban insurgents from three northwest districts, and have not yet set a timescale for the full operation in the tribal region.
A senior US defence official said earlier this month that any operation in South Waziristan would work best with “pressure on both sides of the border”.
The US military does not, as a rule, confirm drone attacks, but its armed forces and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy drones in the region.
Pakistan publicly opposes the US strikes, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace. Since August 2008, about 43 such strikes have killed at least 410 people. — AFP