ISLAMABAD— Intelligence officials in Pakistan say U.S. drone strikes have killed more than 14 al-Qaida-linked militants, including an important commander of the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s volatile tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Officials say several missiles were fired before dawn on suspected militant targets in two Pakistani tribal districts, known as South and North Waziristan. They say the deadliest strike was in the South Waziristan village of Angoor Adda, where the region's main militant commander, Mullah Nazir, and his two deputies were among those killed.
The Pakistani tribal warlord had long been accused of harboring Arab al-Qaida operatives and sending fighters for attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan. He was also an ally of the anti-U.S. Haqqani network of Afghan insurgents entrenched in the area.
Mullah Nazir had signed a peace deal with the Pakistani military five years ago that called for maintaining peace and keeping the Waziristan region free of anti-Pakistan insurgents. His alliance with the authorities had apparently upset local Taliban militants who have frequently launched deadly attacks on Pakistani forces. The contentious relationship was cited for a suicide attack in November that wounded Mullah Nazir and killed several of his fighters.
Asad Munir, a former officer of the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI, says that the killing of Mullah Nazir could provoke his fighters to join hands with domestic insurgents to intensify attacks on government and military targets in the country.
He added that Mullah Nazir was representing the Wazir tribe in South Waziristan and his peace deal with the army was meant to neutralize the threat from the Mehsud tribe in the region that harbored leaders of anti-government local Taliban groups.
“He was an enemy of U.S., there is no doubt. His people, his followers were crossing border and attacking NATO troops," said Munir. "But Pakistan army does not have the capacity to deal with Mehsud and Wazir [tribes] simultaneously. So they want to have peace with some people from the Wazir tribe so they can handle Mehsud. And the worst possibility is that the followers of Mullah Nazir will join hands with the other elements so that will be a very, very dangerous scenario for Pakistan.”
Pakistani officials publicly oppose U.S .drone strikes, saying they are fueling militancy in the region. Moazzam Ahmad Khan is the foreign ministry spokesman.
“Our position has always been very clear and consistent that we find them (drone attacks) totally unproductive, illegal [and] against international law,” said Khan.
Drone attacks against suspected targets in Pakistan’s tribal territory have reportedly killed more than 3,000 people since 2004, including several hundred civilians.
It is difficult to independently verify the number of casualties or identify the individuals killed in the strikes because the remote tribal region is too dangerous for reporters to travel.
However, some military officials and residents in the tribal region have previously acknowledged that drones mostly hit militants who have terrorized the local population and rendered ineffective the state authority there.
The United States has rarely commented on its covert drone operation. However, President Barack Obama last year publicly acknowledged for the first time that the United States has carried out “precision” missile strikes against suspected al-Qaida targets in Pakistan.