US drone attack claims seven lives

PESHAWAR: US missiles today slammed into the hideout of a Pakistani Taliban commander allied to warlord Baitullah Mehsud in the tribal belt, killing at least seven militants, security officials said.

The United States has put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda.

Yesterday, ,000 Marines flew into Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan under a major assault launched as part of a sweeping new war plan.

"Three missiles hit the hideout of Taliban commander Noor Wali," one Pakistani security official told AFP on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Wali is a close ally of Mehsud, who has a five-million-dollar US price on his head and a Pakistani bounty of 615,000 dollars if found dead or alive.

"Seven were killed in Kokat Khel. It is not yet confirmed if the commander is among the dead," another security official added. He said all those killed were Taliban militants.

Wali's compound was hit in the village of Kokat Khel in South Waziristan, which lies on the border with Afghanistan, about 45 kilometres east of Wana - the main town in the wild, semi-autonomous region.

"Reports from the area confirmed that around 12 militants were killed in the raid," a senior security official told AFP on condition of anonymity despite the insistance of the earlier official that not more than seven people died. Pakistani troops have been pressing a two-month battle to dislodge Taliban insurgents in three northwest districts and have waged air raids in South Waziristan to lay the groundwork for a ground assault against Mehsud.

"It was a US drone attack. We have checked -- no Pakistani aircraft was involved in this incident," another Pakistani military official said.

The United States military does not, as a rule, confirm drone attacks, but its armed forces and the Central Intelligence Agency operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy drones in the region.

Washington has branded Pakistan's rugged northwest tribal belt as the most dangerous place in the world for Americans, saying Al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels are plotting attacks on Western targets from militant hideouts there. Pakistan publicly opposes US strikes, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace. Since August 2008, at least 44 such strikes have killed more than 440 people.

Mehsud has been blamed for some of the worst attacks in Pakistan, where about 2,000 people have died in bombings since July 2007.

During the last 24 hours, the Pakistani military said at least 13 militants and four local tribesmen were killed in the districts of Swat and Dir.

Taliban bastion under fire

NAWA: US Marines moved into villages in Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan on Friday, meeting little resistance as they tried to win over local chiefs on the second day of the biggest military operation since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

One Marine was killed and several others injured or wounded on Thursday, when some 4,000 Marines launched the operation in Helmand — a remote area that is at the center of the country's illegal opium cultivation, which helps finance the insurgency. So far, however, there has been little resistance from the Taliban, according to a military spokesman. — AP