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Drone strike kills over a dozen suspected militants near Afghan border

A US drone attack on Sunday killed at least 20 suspected militants in Pakistan's lawless North Waziristan region near the Afghan border. An official told AFP the strike was likely targeting Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud.


AFP - A US drone attack Sunday killed 20 militants in an area of Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt where local Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud reportedly escaped death days ago, officials said.

The attack took place in the area of Shaktoi, where US missiles pounded an extremist hideout on Thursday, 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of the main town in the North Waziristan tribal region, Miranshah.

That raid triggered rumours that Mehsud had been killed or injured, but the chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released an audio message late Saturday denying reports of his demise and vowing revenge for the US strikes.

Security officials said US drones appeared to be tracking Mehsud, in a surge in strikes by unmanned spy planes. Sunday's deadly bombing was the 10th US drone strike to hit Pakistan's tribal belt this month.

"The target was a militant compound," said a security official in the area. "Twenty militant deaths have been confirmed."

An intelligence official said that drone aircraft fired at least three missiles and that militants had ringed the demolished compound in the remote and mountainous area and were digging out the bodies.

"The drones are apparently tracking and targeting Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, whose presence is frequently reported in the area," he said.

Another security official, who also asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the US strikes, said it was too early to tell if any high-value militant targets were among the 20 killed.

Mehsud released a new audio recording on Saturday to dispel rumours of his death, which the military had said they were investigating. The TTP said Mehsud left the site of the attack less than an hour beforehand.

"On the 16th of January, I am saying it again -- I am alive, I am OK, I am not injured.... When the drone strike took place, I was not present in the area at that time," Mehsud said.

"If the drone attacks continue, the TTP will not be responsible for any dangerous steps in future -- the government of Pakistan will be responsible."

Hakimullah Mehsud assumed leadership of the TTP -- blamed for the deaths of thousands of people in attacks across Pakistan -- after his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike last August.

Since he took charge of the TTP, militant attacks against civilian and security targets have surged. On January 1, more than 100 people were killed in a suicide blast at a volleyball game in a northwestern town.

Then on January 9, Hakimullah Mehsud appeared in a video clip alongside a Jordanian who blew himself up on a US military base in Afghanistan last month, killing seven CIA agents and his Jordanian handler.

The Jordanian claimed the attack was to avenge the death of Baitullah Mehsud. Sources close to intelligence services say US efforts to track down Hakimullah Mehsud have been stepped up since the CIA bombing.

A volley of drone strikes has rained on the northwest this month, all hitting North Waziristan, a bastion of Al-Qaeda fighters, the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which attacks US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

More than 700 people have been killed in about 80 US drone strikes in Pakistan since August 2008.

Washington is also pressing Islamabad to tackle militants who use Pakistani soil to launch attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Last year Pakistan's armed forces carried out multiple assaults on TTP strongholds across the tribal belt.

Unrest continues, however, and on Sunday gunmen shot dead an anti-Taliban elder in the tribal district of Bajaur, officials said.

Malik Abdul Qayyum, who had received threats from the Taliban, was sprayed with bullets while leaving his home on the outskirts of the region's main town, local administration official Fazal Rabbi told AFP.

A roadside bomb killed another anti-Taliban tribal elder, Hukum Khan, 50, in Charmang district of Bajaur late Sunday, local official Ghulam Saeed said.



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