MIR ALI, Pakistan >> U.S. drone aircraft fired four missiles at a building in a militant sanctuary in northwestern Pakistan today, killing 38 people in an unusually deadly strike, Pakistani officials said.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official said the dead were militants meeting to discuss plans to send fighters to Afghanistan; the local governor said they were innocent tribal elders and police.
Masood Kausar, the governor of northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, condemned the strikes and said the families of the victims should receive compensation.
“We have criticized drone attacks before and we will continue to raise our voice to condemn these attacks,” said Kausar.
The senior Pakistani security official denied the governor’s accusations and said they were likely driven by Taliban propaganda. The militants claimed after the strikes that innocent tribesmen were killed, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The missiles hit a compound in the Datta Khel area of the North Waziristan tribal region — the main sanctuary for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters along the Afghan border, said Pakistani intelligence officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
While it was unclear exactly how many militants were at the meeting, it appeared that almost all were killed or wounded, said the officials. A total of 38 people were killed and seven wounded, they said.
The militants were allied with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful Pakistani Taliban commander in the area who has focused his efforts on fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan, said the officials.
The most senior militant killed in the attack was Sharabat Khan, Bahadur’s top commander for the Datta Khel area, who was leading the meeting, said the officials. Several foreign militants were also killed, they said.
The United States began firing missiles at militant targets in Pakistan in 2004, but the pace of the attacks picked up dramatically in 2008. Last year, there were around 120 strikes, which are believed to be carried out by unmanned drone aircraft launched either from Afghanistan or from inside Pakistan. There have been around 20 so far this year.
Most of the strikes this year and last have been in North Waziristan.
Washington does not acknowledge firing the missiles and reporters are barred from visiting the area, meaning it is hard to verify who is being killed. Pakistani leaders formally protest the strikes, but its intelligence agencies are widely believed to cooperate in some of them.
Ishtiaq Mahsud contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan.