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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Pakistan air strike destroys Taliban base in Waziristan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistan army air strike on a militant camp near the Afghan border on Tuesday killed around 20 fighters in a tribal area regarded as a hotbed of support for the Taliban and al Qaeda, according to intelligence officials.

"The operation was carried out at around 6:55 a.m. (0155 GMT) in Zamzola in South Waziristan, based on information that 25 to 30 miscreants, including foreigners, were present there," Major General Shaukat Sultan, Pakistan's military spokesman, said.

The attack came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Kabul for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and follows comments by senior U.S. officials putting pressure on Pakistan to do more to stop Taliban fighters crossing the border to fight Afghan, NATO and U.S. forces.

Sultan said there was a precision air strike on a cluster of five mud-walled compounds, of which three were completely destroyed, and helicopter gunships mopped up.

"Our ground forces didn't participate in the operation and dead bodies and wounded were retrieved by locals," Sultan said.

Fighters loyal to a pro-Taliban militant leader called Baitullah Mehsud were housed and trained at the compounds, according to intelligence officials. Mehsud's fate was unknown.

Based on intelligence gathered, the military spokesman said eight fighters were killed and 10 were wounded.

Intelligence officials from two different agencies said the death toll was more like 20, though they confirmed that of the corpses found so far five were Afghans and the other three belonged to men of the Mehsud tribe.

Villagers in Zamzola told Reuters they were still searching the rubble for bodies almost 10 hours after that attack.

"We're removing debris. There's a huge amount of it, and it will take time. There could be more people under it," said Noor Mohammad, a resident.

Several wounded were taken to hospitals in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, another area where Taliban sympathies run deep.

One villager raised the possibility that U.S. drone aircraft helped identify the target in the forested mountains, 60 km (40 miles) north of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, and close to the boundary with Afghanistan and North Waziristan.

"It is a small forest where the bombing took place. We noticed a drone hovering early in the morning and then a few helicopters came and bombed three houses there," villager Mohammad Ali told Reuters.

A Reuters reporter in North Waziristan saw seven helicopters including at least two U.S.-built Cobras leave from Tochi Fort's helipad in Miranshah less than an hour before the attack and returned shortly after.

Sultan said video footage and stills of the aftermath of the attack would be released at some stage.


The army launched a campaign in late 2003 to clear out nests of al Qaeda from South Waziristan, but after it struck a peace deal Taliban militants like Mehsud grew in influence in the semi-autonomous tribal region.

They have been actively recruiting men and boys, including suicide bombers, to fight in Afghanistan.

Last September, another peace deal was struck with tribal elders in neighbouring North Waziristan, but U.S. officials say infiltration levels into Afghanistan remain at high levels.

Pakistan has lost hundreds of troops fighting in Waziristan, and has sought political ways to isolate the militants, to reduce the risk of sparking a wider conflict in the tribal areas.

U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte stirred controversy last week in testimony to a Senate committee, in which he said al Qaeda leaders were hiding in Pakistan and described the country as a "major source of Islamic extremism".

But Negroponte noted the dangers President Pervez Musharraf faced in using force in tribal areas, as well as the political risks of a backlash from Islamist political parties, especially as national elections are due in Pakistan this year.
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