23 June 2009
U.S. Drone Strike Said to Kill 60 in Pakistan
New York Times
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An airstrike believed to have been carried out by a United States drone killed at least 60 people at a funeral for a Taliban fighter in South Waziristan on Tuesday, residents of the area and local news reports said.
Details of the attack, which occurred in Makeen, remained unclear, but the reported death toll was exceptionally high. If the reports are indeed accurate and if the attack was carried out by a drone, the strike could be the deadliest since the United States began using the aircraft to fire remotely guided missiles at members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The United States carried out 22 previous drone strikes this year, as the Obama administration has intensified a policy inherited from the Bush administration.
Before the attack on Tuesday, the Pakistani Army and Air Force had begun operations in South Waziristan against the forces of the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud. The group’s suicide bombings in major cities have terrorized Pakistanis for years.
In a serious blow to Pakistan’s effort, on Tuesday an assassin loyal to Mr. Mehsud shot and killed a rival tribal leader, Qari Zainuddin, whom the government had hoped to use as an ally in its campaign to corner the Taliban leader.
The killing called into question the government’s strategy of exploiting tribal fissures in order to defeat Mr. Mehsud and was apparently intended to serve as a reminder that there were serious consequences for crossing him, analysts said.
“It tells people, if you side with the government, this is what will happen to you,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and a military analyst. “It says the government can’t give you protection, but the other side can.”
The army, which is already involved in operations against Taliban strongholds in the Swat Valley and other areas, would now have to rely more on its own soldiers to take on the Taliban in South Waziristan as well, he said.
Mr. Zainuddin was killed in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan, said Iqbal Khan, the town’s district police chief, and the tribal leader’s death revealed the tenuous hold of his splinter group in the area.
The initial investigation, the police chief said, indicated that the shooting was carried out by a guard named Gulbadin Mehsud, who may have infiltrated Mr. Zainuddin’s ranks and escaped after the attack. Another guard was wounded in the attack, he said.
In recent months, Mr. Zainuddin and his group had helped the government by denying Baitullah Mehsud and his fighters the ability to operate in the region, killing about 30 of Mr. Mehsud’s fighters.
When he was in his 30s, Mr. Zainuddin was part of Mr. Mehsud’s tribe. However, Mr. Zainuddin split with Mr. Mehsud and joined forces with Turkestan Bhaitani, an older Taliban fighter who had switched sides to ally with the government.
The two men had held a jirga, or tribal meeting, this month with as many as 100 elders of the Mehsud tribe in the town of Tank in an effort to rally opposition to Mr. Mehsud. Officially, the Pakistani military denies supporting the effort.
Mr. Zainuddin was selected as successor to Abdullah Mehsud, a top Taliban militant who died in 2007 as security forces raided a hide-out in Baluchistan Province. Mr. Zainuddin had claimed that he had the ability to take on Baitullah Mehsud with the support of 3,000 fighters.
“Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in jihad because Islam does not allow suicide attacks, which his group is perpetrating,” Mr. Zainuddin was quoted as saying in an interview.
Some reports in the local news media have also suggested that Mr. Mehsud killed Mr. Zainuddin’s father years ago.
Pakistani jets have aimed at Mr. Mehsud’s hide-outs in recent days, and the funeral in Makeen that was hit on Tuesday was being held for a Taliban commander killed that day.
While the strike on the funeral may have been conducted by the Pakistani Air Force, residents and local news reports uniformly attributed it to a United States drone.
The dead may have included top commanders for Mr. Mehsud. The Geo Television Network, quoting unnamed sources, said that the dead included a trainer of suicide bombers named Qari Hussain as well as a Taliban commander named Sangeen, though there was no way to immediately verify the report.
Another television channel, AAJ, put the death toll at 60 and said the attack was carried out by a guided missile.
Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Lahore,