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Pak Taliban Chief Hakimullah Survives Drone Missile Attack

U.S. missiles slammed into a former school where Pakistani Taliban leaders were meeting Thursday, killing 12 people near the Afghan border in a strike that may have been aimed at the insurgents' top commander. The
PTI January 14, 2010 19:52 IST

U.S. missiles slammed into a former school where Pakistani Taliban leaders were meeting Thursday, killing 12 people near the Afghan border in a strike that may have been aimed at the insurgents' top commander. The militant chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, was not among the victims, intelligence officials and militants told The Associated Press.

The strike was the eighth such attack in two weeks in North Waziristan tribal region, a surge that has illustrated the Obama administration's confidence in the tactic despite official protest from Islamabad. Had it killed Mehsud, it would have relieved Pakistan of a key enemy and offered some revenge for a deadly December attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan claimed by Mehsud's group.

At least two missiles hit the Pasalkot area of North Waziristan around 7 a.m. Thursday, landing in a sprawling compound that has been used as a religious school in the past. The dead militants included two foreigners, while at least eight militants were wounded, said the intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media on the record.

Three intelligence officials and four militants told the AP that Mehsud was not among the dead. He had been expected to attend the meeting, but authorities were still trying to determine whether he ever made it to the session, the officials said. They cited wireless communications intercepts tracking Mehsud's movements.

The militants said Mehsud was alive, safe and traveling. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and for personal security reasons.

Nearly all the missile attacks in recent months have focused on North Waziristan, a segment of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt where militant networks focused on battling the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan are based. Some of those militants also are believed to have been involved in a late December attack that killed seven CIA employees in eastern Afghanistan.

It's a region that the Pakistani military has been wary of treading, partly because groups based there have not directly threatened the Pakistani state. The army has struck truces with some of them to keep them out of its battle against the Pakistani Taliban — who have attacked Pakistan in numerous ways — in neighboring South Waziristan.

However, a number of Pakistani Taliban leaders are believed to have fled the army operation in South Waziristan and landed in other parts of the tribal belt, including North Waziristan. In a video released posthumously, the bomber who attacked the CIA base sat next to Hakimullah Mehsud and urged more strikes on the U.S.

The strike came as Richard Holbrooke, a U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, was visiting parts of Pakistan.

The U.S. rarely discusses the covert missile campaign, though in the past American officials have lauded it as a successful tactic that has killed several top al-Qaida operatives as well as former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

Pakistan formally protests the drone-fired strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and spur more anti-American sentiment among the population, but many analysts believe the nuclear-armed South Asian nation secretly aids the campaign.

During a Wednesday media conference with Holbrooke, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi stopped short of completely ruling out the missile attacks, but said there were certain "red lines" that Washington must not cross.

"Pakistan feels that it would undermine our relationship if there is expansion of drones and if there are (U.S.) operations on the ground," Qureshi said.

Elsewhere in the tribal belt Thursday, a remote-controlled roadside bomb killed an anti-Taliban tribal elder and wounded six others as they traveled in a car following a meeting with other local elders, local government official Jawed Khan said.

The attack in the Halimzai area of Mohmand tribal region was just the latest in a series of such assaults on tribal elders who have sided with the government against the militants. The Taliban's persecution of tribal leaders has led to a power vacuum in some areas that the militants have quickly filled. AP