Authorities in Pakistan say a suspected U.S. missile strike has killed at least six al-Qaida-linked militants in a remote northwestern village. Meanwhile, senior military officials say that close coordination between Pakistani troops and U.S-led coalition forces has helped an ongoing offensive to evict militants from a tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
Officials say a pre-dawn missile strike by what is believed to have been a U.S. unmanned spy plane destroyed a militant hideout in the northwestern district of Bannu. Most of those killed in the attack are said to be foreign fighters, including a senior al-Qaida operative of Arab origin identified as Abdullah Azam al-Saudi.
Witnesses say that militants quickly removed bodies from the scene before local authorities arrived to investigate the incident.
Speaking by telephone district police officer Mohammed Alam Shinwari confirmed the attack.
He says investigations continue in an effort to confirm exactly how many people were killed in the early morning attack.
This was the first alleged U.S missile strike to have hit a target outside Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal regions on the Afghan border, which have become a safe haven for al-Qaida and Taliban militants.
Pakistani authorities allege U.S drones have carried out more than 20 missile strikes in the past three months. Although Washington does not comment on them, senior U.S officials are reported as saying the strikes have killed important al-Qaida operatives in recent weeks. But Pakistani leaders and tribesmen say most of the victims were innocent civilians.
The government has protested the U.S attacks, saying they violate the country's sovereignty and undermine public support for its anti-terror efforts.
Reports appeared in American media have suggested that a secret deal between Washington and Islamabad signed recently allowed the stepped up U.S missile attacks inside Pakistan. But a statement this week from the country's foreign minister denied the reports.
Meanwhile, military spokesman Major General Atthar Abbass disclosed an ongoing anti-insurgent operation in the militant-infested Bajaur tribal region has made gains because U.S-led coalition forces have given assistance from the Afghan side of the border.
"This is the first time that they have also deployed their forces checking the border crossings, and, therefore, we were able to target the foreign militants in Bajaur and choke them in the area," Abbass said. "There have been also communications between the main posts on both sides of the border. They have been communication with each other and assisting each other against the militants' crossings and militants' operations in the area."
A senior U.S military commander has also confirmed that NATO and Afghan forces have stepped up border cooperation with the Pakistani military. He told reporters this week that "Operation Lionheart" also included coordinated action against militants on both sides of the border.
Pakistani authorities say that they have killed nearly 2,000 militants, including foreigners in the Bajaur operation.