By MUNIR AHMAD, AP
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A missile strike by a suspected U.S. drone killed at least three people in a Pakistani tribal region near the Afghan border, two Pakistani intelligence officials said Wednesday.
The strike came amid reports that Pakistan’s top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, had fallen ill and died. Officials have accused Mehsud over the slaying of former leader Benazir Bhutto.
The two intelligence officials said the missiles struck the home of a local Taliban commander before midnight Tuesday near Mir Ali, a town in the North Waziristan region.
The officials, citing reports from their field agents, said at least six people were also wounded in the attack. Both officials asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
They said a U.S. drone aircraft – not Pakistani forces – fired the missiles.
They did not identify any of the victims.
American forces recently ramped up cross-border operations against Taliban and al-Qaida militants in Pakistan’s wild border zone, a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden.
The attacks have drawn stiff protests from Islamabad, an uneasy ally in Washington’s seven-year war on terror, particularly since an highly unusual Sept. 3 raid by U.S. ground troops in the South Waziristan region.
Pakistani leaders insist only their forces are allowed to carry out operations inside Pakistan, and its troops recently fired warning shots at U.S. helicopters flying over the ill-marked frontier.
South Waziristan is the stronghold of Mehsud, the head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group for militant groups operating across Pakistan’s northwest.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official said Mehsud died late Monday of kidney failure after suffering from diabetes. The official declined to discuss any evidence of Mehsud’s death.
A militant commander close to Mehsud acknowledged that his boss had kidney problems, but denied that he had passed away. The commander said he was on his way to Mehsud’s headquarters in the town of Makeen to meet with him.
Officials have accused Mehsud of being behind a wave of suicide attacks washing over Pakistan since the middle of last year. Pakistani and U.S. officials have accused him of involvement in killing of Bhutto in a gun-and-bomb attack in December.
American officials express frustration at Pakistan’s failure to kill or capture militant leaders whom they accuse of sending fighters and arms into Afghanistan, where foreign troop casualties are escalating.
In a move that could help answer those complaints, Pakistan’s army chief on Monday appointed a new head of the country’s premier intelligence agency.
U.S. and Afghan officials have accused elements in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency of secretly colluding with some militant groups.