PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Suspected U.S. missiles slammed into a compound near the Afghanistan border yesterday, killing about 30 people, local officials said. Most of the people killed were thought to be militants linked to the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
The raid came two days after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), perhaps inadvertently, made the first public disclosure by a senior U.S. official that the CIA-operated drones used in such attacks are flown from bases inside Pakistan, not from across the border in Afghanistan.
The missile attacks have been problematic for Pakistan's struggling civilian government. The Pakistani leadership is thought to have given a go-ahead for the raids, although it publicly decries them.
The wrecked compound belonged to an associate of Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban movement, and was not far from Mahsud's own headquarters. But he was not believed to have been at the compound, and it was unclear whether he was the intended target.
About a dozen people were reported to have been injured in the raid near Wana, the main town in the restive South Waziristan tribal region. The area is considered a militant stronghold and has been hit repeatedly in an intense campaign of U.S. strikes using pilotless drones. Yesterday's strike appeared to be the deadliest yet.
Local sources said the dead included Arabs and Uzbeks; generally, the presence of foreign militants is a sign of links to al-Qaeda. Hours after the strike by two missiles, bodies were still being pulled from the rubble. Taliban fighters surrounded the flattened compound, preventing outsiders from approaching.
The comments about the Predator strikes last week by Feinstein could inflame domestic anger against the Pakistani government. At a Senate hearing Thursday attended by Dennis Blair, the director of U.S. national intelligence, Feinstein said: "As I understand, these [drones] are flown out of a Pakistani base."
Friday is the Muslim Sabbath, and the remarks were not widely reported in the Pakistani media until yesterday, when they generated headlines.
Blair did not directly address the senator's assertion. But he and other senior U.S. officials have defended the missile strikes as an effective tool against al-Qaeda, saying that several important figures had been killed in the raids.
The drone attacks also have killed scores of Pakistani civilians. Many people consider the strikes a violation of the country's sovereignty.
Some people in Pakistan had wondered whether the Obama administration would discontinue the strikes that began under President George W. Bush, but a raid took place only three days after the inauguration. Obama has said publicly that decisive measures were needed to dislodge militants from the tribal areas.
Mahsud has been blamed by the Pakistani government for masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Pakistan's current government is led by Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari.
Even though the Pakistani leadership has lodged formal diplomatic protests with the U.S. Embassy over the missile strikes, Zardari also has said that Pakistan's own interests are served by confronting Islamic insurgents in the tribal areas.