US strike kills 16 Pak militants

PESHAWAR: A US missile strike pulverised a compound in a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud Tuesday, killing 16 foreign and local militants, security officials said.

The strike, carried out by a suspected unmanned US aircraft, destroyed a compound in the Zangara area of South Waziristan -- part of Pakistan's lawless, tribal belt on the Afghan border where Islamist militants are holed up.

One missile struck a Taliban hideout in the hamlet of Chinakai, killing foreign and local militants, said a Pakistani security official on condition of anonymity in a reference to suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

A high-ranking official described the target as a former office of Mehsud, who has a five-million-dollar price on his head and a bounty of 615,000 dollars in Pakistan for allegedly masterminding multiple deadly bombings.

It was not immediately clear whether any high-value target was present at the time of the strike.

Suspected US attacks and Pakistani air strikes have increasingly targeted strongholds of Mehsud, described by the US State Department as a key Al-Qaeda facilitator in Pakistan's mountainous tribal region.

"Sixteen militants were killed and at least eight others wounded in the missile strike. Four among the dead are foreigners and the remaining are locals," one Pakistani security official told AFP.

The nationalities of the foreigners were not immediately known.

Another security official confirmed the number of casualties and said 12 bodies had already been pulled from under the rubble of the compound, which was destroyed in the strike.

The United States 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.

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.

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.

Two paramilitary soldiers were killed and nine security personnel wounded in three bomb attacks in North and South Waziristan, a security official said.

The military said Tuesday that four militants were killed, including a brother of Ibn-e-Amin, one of the most-wanted Taliban commanders in the Swat valley, but official death tolls have been impossible to confirm independently.

Washington has described 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 45 such strikes have killed around 450 people.

Mehsud has been blamed for some of Pakistan's worst attacks, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

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

Tuesday's attack came four days after another suspected US drone targeted the hideout of Noor Wali, a commander allied to Mehsud elsewhere in South Waziristan, and killed at least seven militants.