2 March 2009
Afghan-border missile attack kills 8, Pakistan says
by Laura King
The Los Angeles Times

A US pilotless aircraft is believed to have carried out the strike, which targeted a Taliban leader's stronghold.

Islamabad - A missile attack near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, believed to have been carried out by a U.S. drone aircraft, killed at least eight people Sunday, Pakistani officials said.

The strike, the first of its kind since a high-level Pakistani military delegation visited the United States last week, suggested the Obama administration intends to press ahead with a campaign of targeting militants in Pakistan's tribal areas.

The two missiles, apparently fired by a pilotless aircraft, hit a compound near the Sara Rogha area of South Waziristan. The area is a stronghold of Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban movement.

Local and intelligence officials said at least some of those killed in the strike were "foreigners" - the term usually meant to describe militants from Central Asia or Arab countries who often have links to Al Qaeda.

Drone attacks in the tribal areas intensified during the last months of the Bush administration; about 30 such strikes were carried out in the last half of 2008. Pakistan has publicly protested the raids, but it is widely believed that the civilian government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, sanctions them.

The attacks, highly unpopular with Pakistanis, have been politically sensitive for Zardari's government, which is fending off a strong challenge from popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan's Supreme Court, in a controversial verdict, last week banned Sharif and his politician brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from holding elective office.

Supporters of the pair staged days of riots in Punjab province, the Sharif brothers' stronghold. On Saturday, during a stormy session of Parliament, backers of Sharif delivered harsh denunciations of Zardari, and heckling of the president echoed through the chamber.

Zardari himself was not present for the session. Except for trips abroad, he has lately stayed mainly out of sight in the presidential palace.

The Sharifs' party has gained considerable public support because of Nawaz Sharif's fiery calls for the reinstatement of the Supreme Court chief justice dismissed in 2007 by then-President Pervez Musharraf. Sharif has accused Zardari of carrying on the legacy of the onetime military leader with his failure to reinstate the justice, Mohammed Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Many commentators believe Zardari does not want Chaudhry back on the bench because he fears corruption charges against him would be reinstated.

Against the backdrop of the country's latest political crisis, Taliban militants in the troubled Swat Valley, 100 miles north of the capital, are demanding that the government move ahead with a pledge to institute Sharia, or Islamic law, in the region.

Under an accord between the government and militants reached two weeks ago, Taliban fighters who for months have terrorized the onetime tourist haven are to lay down their arms. But they have said they will not do so until an Islamic judicial system is in place; the government says that will happen only once peace has taken hold.

Militants in Swat continue to carry out small-scale attacks against Pakistani troops, despite an official cessation of hostilities. Two soldiers were reported injured Sunday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb. The accord in Swat has stirred concern among Western governments, who fear that the truce with the Taliban will enlarge the sanctuary that Islamic militants already have in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

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