US missiles kill 33 in Pak

DERA ISMAIL KHAN: Two separate US missile strikes slammed into the tribal stronghold of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud on Wednesday, killing 33 suspected fighters, security officials said.

The attacks, the suspected work of US drones, came as Pakistan reported that Maulana Fazlullah, the most-wanted Taliban commander in the Swat valley, also in the northwest, was injured during a recent army offensive.

In the first missile strike, in the early hours of the morning, six projectiles fired from an unmanned drone aircraft flattened an alleged training centre for Islamist extremists in South Waziristan, killing eight militants.

Hours later, another suspected drone targeted a convoy of vehicles carrying Taliban militants in the same province, officials said.

"At least 25 militants have been killed in the US missile strike," a senior security official in the area told AFP, referring to the second attack.

Two other security officials confirmed the strikes and casualties, with one telling AFP that the death toll could still rise further.

Pakistani fighter jets have also pounded Mehsud hideouts in recent weeks, with the military vowing to hunt down the warlord's militant network in the remote northwest region known as a base for Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels.

The first strike hit about 35 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of the main town Wana, with two officials confirming the death toll of eight.

It was not immediately clear whether any high-value targets were killed in either strike in the mountainous region bordering Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, a US missile strike killed 16 foreign and local militants in a nearby mountain stronghold of Mehsud, who has been described by the US State Department as a key Al-Qaeda facilitator in Pakistan's tribal belt.

Washington alleges Islamist fighters hide out in the mountains near the Afghan border, plotting attacks on Western targets and crossing the porous frontier to attack foreign troops based in Afghanistan.

Mehsud has a five-million-dollar reward on his head offered by the United States, and a bounty of 615,000 dollars in Pakistan for allegedly masterminding multiple deadly bombings in the last two years.

About 2,000 people have died in Islamist bombings across the country since July 2007, when government forces besieged a radical mosque in Islamabad.

In the latest such attack, a bomb blast on Wednesday killed one man and wounded five others including three police officers in the city of Peshawar, which has been hit by a wave of Taliban-linked violence.

Pakistani troops have been pressing a two-month battle to dislodge Taliban insurgents in three northwest districts and have carried out air raids in South Waziristan ahead of a widely expected ground assault against Mehsud.

Islamabad, however, publicly opposes the US strikes, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace. Since August 2008, at least 48 such strikes have killed around 500 people.

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

Washington has put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda and has deployed 4,000 Marines against Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan under a major assault launched as part of a sweeping new war plan.

Also Wednesday, the Pakistani army said it had "credible" information that Fazlullah, the commander of the Taliban in the Swat valley, had been injured in Pakistani air strikes two days ago.

The radical cleric is the architect of a nearly two-year Taliban uprising to enforce sharia law in the Swat valley, where the army says it is wrapping up a two-month offensive to drive out the insurgents.