US Drone Attack Claims 80 Lives in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (AP) - What appeared to be the deadliest U.S. missile
attack ever on Pakistani soil brought an unusual reaction Wednesday
in a country that has previously denounced such strikes as an
affront to its sovereignty - silence.

Tuesday's attack killed 80 people, Pakistani officials said, but
missed its chief target, Baitullah Mehsud. He is the country's top
Taliban leader and its public enemy No. 1, accused of masterminding
numerous brutal operations including the assassination of Benazir
Bhutto.

The seemingly accurate targeting appeared to point to
cooperation between the U.S. military and Pakistani intelligence -
despite Pakistani denials. This was possible because Mehsud -
unlike some other U.S. foes in the northwest tribal region on the
Afghan border - is so reviled in Pakistan.

Missiles apparently fired by unmanned aircraft first struck a
purported Taliban training center in South Waziristan, then another
barrage rained down on a funeral procession for some of those who
had been killed earlier.

Mehsud attended the funeral in Makeen village, and panicky
militants reported losing contact with the Taliban chief for a
short time immediately after the attack, according to radio
intercepts cited by two Pakistani intelligence officials.

But the officials said they were later able to determine that
Mehsud left the funeral shortly before the missiles struck.

The two missile strikes killed at least 80 people, including
several senior militants, said the officials, speaking to The
Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not
authorized to divulge the information. Fifty-five of those killed
were at the funeral, they said.

The Taliban gave a slightly lower count: Waliur Rehman, an aide
to Mehsud, told the AP that 65 people were killed, including some
militants.

It was not known if innocent civilians were among the dead, an
issue that has drawn outrage in Pakistan and Afghanistan whenever
U.S. missiles have been fired. The region is too dangerous for
outsiders to enter, making independent confirmation of the attack's
details impossible.

Militant leaders have been targeted in dozens of strikes in the
past two years from U.S. drones, high-tech, remote control planes
used for both surveillance and to fire Hellfire missiles. The U.S.
military never comments on such operations. The highest known death
toll in earlier suspected U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan was 30.

Pakistan has loudly disapproved of past drone attacks because
they involve the use of force by a foreign government on its soil
and sometimes kill innocents.

But the latest strikes went unremarked upon by Pakistani
officials for almost 24 hours. When the AP asked for comment, the
Foreign Ministry issued a short statement reiterating "Pakistan's
consistent position that drone attacks are a violation of
Pakistan's sovereignty and must be stopped."

Pakistani officials have said previously that civilian
casualties occurred when the U.S. struck suspected targets on the
Afghan border without Pakistan's agreement and intelligence.

At least two of those targets - Sirajuddin Haqqani and Maulvi
Naseer - are fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but Pakistan has
no quarrel with either man.

This time, the apparent U.S. target was Pakistan's most wanted
man and the focus of a military operation that is gearing up in his
home territory of South Waziristan, part of the lawless tribal zone
where Osama bin Laden and other high-value U.S. targets may be
hiding.

The offensive comes on the back of the army's operation to oust
the Taliban from another northwestern stronghold in the Swat Valley
region.

Both campaigns are strongly backed by the Obama administration,
which views them as a test of Pakistan's resolve to confront a
growing insurgency after years of halfhearted offensives and peace
deals with militants.

Many Pakistanis support the operations, fed up with the
brutality the Taliban displayed in Swat and with Mehsud's
increasingly widespread and bloody campaign of bombings that have
killed not just security forces, but also civilians and Islamic
clerics who denounced the militant violence as against the tenets
of Islam.

Mehsud is also accused of engineering last year's assassination
of former Prime Minister Bhutto, whose husband, Asif Ali Zardari,
is now president of Pakistan.

The battle in the tribal zone, a mountainous area where the
central government holds little sway over heavily armed and
religiously conservative clans, will almost certainly be far
tougher than in Swat.

Mehsud is believed to have some 12,000 loyal fighters, including
hundreds of foreigners. He humbled the Pakistani army in past
battles and has been forging fresh alliances with other powerful
Taliban leaders and killing off opponents - the most recent one on
Tuesday.

"Baitullah Mehsud has crossed a red line, and the Pakistan
government and military is declaring open war on him," said
Ishtiaq Ahmad, a Pakistan-U.S. specialist at Islamabad's
Qaid-i-Azam University.

"What we are seeing now is a relatively promising scenario
where there is renewed commitment and closer collaboration between
Pakistan's security forces and NATO and U.S. forces in
Afghanistan," he said.

That tone could change, however, if the attacks kill leaders
less disliked than Mehsud and his cohorts, Ahmad said.

Mahmood Shah, a former security chief in the tribal region, said
the government's failure to condemn the missile attacks forcefully
could produce a backlash if the U.S. is perceived to be fighting
Pakistan's battles.

"Once the impression is established that Americans are
assisting in this operation, the indigenous effort will be
discredited and anti-American sentiments in the tribal region will
overshadow everything," Shah said.


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