US drones kill over 50 Taliban in Pakistan (Lead)

June 24th, 2009 - 2:49 am ICT by IANS  

Taliban Dera Ismail Khan (Pakistan), June 24 (DPA) Two suspected US drone strikes killed at least 52 militants in Pakistan’s tribal district of South Waziristan, where the Pakistani military plans to launch offensive against the chief of local Taliban, intelligence officials said.
The attacks came hours after a militant leader who had defected from Pakistani Taliban head Baitullah Mehsud was assassinated by an “infiltrator” in the adjoining district of North West Frontier Province.

A pilotless aircraft Tuesday fired three missiles on a hideout used regularly by Mehsud’s fighters in South Waziristan, a security official said requesting anonymity.

“The missiles hit a Taliban markaz (centre) in the Makeen (area), killing at least seven Taliban,” the official said. Four more militants were injured and two vehicles were destroyed in the strike.

Later, as Taliban members were attending the funeral of their dead comrades, another suspected US drone fired four guided missiles at them.

“Our local sources are saying that 45 people have died and more than 60 are injured,” said the official.

“Almost all of those killed and injured are Taliban and a senior commander of Mehsud’s, Sangeen Khan is confirmed dead, while there are reports that Mehsud’s deputy,” Qari Hussain, might also have died.

It seems that Taliban have suffered huge losses, its a major setback for them, he added.

Another intelligence official put the death toll at 50 and claimed that Taliban chief Mehsud himself was attending the funeral. “We are trying to confirm whether he died in the strike or managed to survive it.”

The first drone strike came around two and half hours after Taliban commander, Qari Zainuddin, who had defected Mehsud was shot dead in his compound in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, located adjacent to South Waziristan.

Baz Mohammad, one of Zainuddin’s supporters who was also wounded, identified the attacker as Gulbadin Mehsud, a tribesman from the district’s Makeen area.

The assailant met the militant leader some four months back and assured him that he was dissociating himself from the Baitullah Mehsud-led group and wished to join Zainuddin’s ranks.

“After winning our confidence, Gulbadin was staying with us. This morning he sneaked into the room where Qari sahib used to see people after morning prayer with a (silencer) pistol concealed under his clothing and opened fire on him,” Mohammad told DPA at the hospital.

Zainuddin suffered a fatal bullet wound to his head and died before receiving any medical aid.

Senior police officer Salahuddin Khan confirmed the incident. Khan said the gunman escaped after the shooting because there was no sound of gunfire that could have alerted the guards.

Zainuddin recently accused Mehsud of pursuing a “foreign agenda” by waging an insurgency in his own country, and said he supported the military action against the warlord.

No group claimed responsibility for the assassination and it was also not clear if US drone attacks were in anyway linked with Zainuddin’s murder.

Zainuddin criticised the Taliban chief for killing civilians in terror strikes, and said Islam did not permit fighting against a Muslim country. He said the Taliban should focus on “infidels” - meaning the NATO forces - in Afghanistan.

Separately, Pakistani jets pounded Taliban positions in Laddah area, destroying several structures believed to be used by the Taliban militants. “Six people were reported killed in the raids,” the official said without giving any details.

Pakistani jets have carried out multiple strikes on suspected Taliban hideouts and training camps in South Waziristan over the past week to soften up the militant targets, killing dozens of insurgents, before the eventual push in the ungoverned region.

Washington has been pushing Pakistan to eliminate Al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in Mehsud’s stronghold, which is used as a launch pad for attacks on international forces in Afghanistan.

The US has also put a $5-million bounty on Mehsud’s head, describing him as “a key Al Qaeda facilitator”.

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