Wire Dispatch : Residents: missile strike hits Pakistan village

Friday, May 16, 2008

Residents: missile strike hits Pakistan village

Suspected missile strike hits Pakistan border village, about 12 people reported dead

HABIBULLAH KHAN | AP News | May 14, 2008

A suspected missile strike late Wednesday destroyed a house and killed about a dozen people in a Pakistan border village that was targeted by the U.S. military two years ago in the hunt for al-Qaida's No. 2 leader.

Residents said at least two explosions rocked Damadola village, in the Bajur tribal region near the border with Afghanistan, around 8 p.m. They reported seeing drone aircraft flying in the area before the blasts and said Taliban militants cordoned off the area afterward.

There was no immediate official confirmation of the incident or any claim of responsibility. Pakistan's army said it had no information about a missile strike.

The explosions came as Pakistani authorities and Taliban militants exchanged dozens of prisoners in the latest step in a peace process that is stirring growing alarm in the West. NATO claims it militant incursions into Afghanistan have increased.

Pakistan has said it does not allow U.S. forces to operate on its territory. But villagers in the region, which is a haven for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, have reported seeing U.S. drones fire missiles at suspected militant targets on several occasions in recent years.

Villager Ibrahim Khan said at least 15 people were killed in the explosions in Damadola. He said local Taliban leaders had gathered for a feast at the targeted house. He reported secondary explosions, suggesting weapons had been stored inside.

Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar said more than 10 people were killed, including women and children.

Neither account could be independently confirmed late Wednesday. An Associated Press reporter in Khar, about six miles from Damadola, heard explosions.

In 2006, a U.S. missile strike targeted Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, in Damadola — apparently launched from a Predator drone controlled by the CIA in Afghanistan. At least 13 villagers were killed but the al-Qaida deputy chief escaped unharmed.

Pakistani intelligence officials initially said several other senior al-Qaida operatives died in that attack, but their bodies were never produced. Al-Zawahri remains at large.

People in Damadola said militants were preventing people from getting close to the destroyed house Wednesday night. But two witnesses, Muhammad Khalid Khan and Fazal Khan, told the AP that they had seen bodies carried from the rubble of the fort-like compound.

Umar, the Taliban spokesman, called the attack a deliberate attempt to harm the Taliban's peace talks with the new Pakistani government, which is negotiating with Islamic militants in hopes of quelling bloody violence in the northwestern border regions with Afghanistan.

"We will avenge this but will continue talks with the government," Umar said.

Earlier Wednesday, a Pakistani army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said tribal elders mediating in the peace talks with the Taliban had secured the release of seven security personnel, including two army officers.

In return, authorities released 30 people detained in Waziristan, a key militant stronghold overlooking the Afghan border, Abbas said.

He described the 30 only as "tribal people." But three Pakistani intelligence officials, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because they were not authorized to speak to journalists, all said the freed men were suspected militants.

Pakistan's new civilian government has offered to negotiate with militants who renounce violence. But Western officials worry poorly enforced peace deals will allow al-Qaida and Taliban militants to build up their strength and further fortify their havens in the semiautonomous tribal belt on the Pakistani side of the frontier.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said its eastern regional command had seen attacks increase 50 percent in April compared with the same period last year.

The main concern is that the deals being negotiated may be allowing extremist groups "to have safe havens, rest, reconstitute and then move across the border," Appathurai told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Pakistani officials have said peace agreements will include commitments by Islamic groups to halt terrorist attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and to expel foreign militants.

Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Bashirullah Khan in Miran Shah, Zarar Khan, Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Paul Ames in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.