Miranshah, Pakistan (AFP) March 17, 2011
The death toll from a US drone strike in Pakistan's lawless northwest reached 24 on Thursday, and officials said all those killed were militants in the Al-Qaeda and Taliban-hit region.
A security official in Peshawar said four missiles struck a militant training centre in Datta Khel town, 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan tribal area, which borders Afghanistan.
"Militants were using this house as a training centre and used to meet here. They have recovered 24 dead bodies from the debris. We think the death toll may rise. 10 militants are critically injured," said the official.
An intelligence official in Miranshah confirmed the new toll.
earlier related report
The US unmanned aircraft operate with the tacit consent of Islamabad but cause widespread anti-American sentiment, which is running particularly high after authorities released a CIA contractor being held for murder on Wednesday.
Officials said two missiles hit Datta Khel town, 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan tribal area, which borders Afghanistan and is a stronghold of Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants.
"A US drone fired four missiles on a house. 12 militants were killed in the attack," a senior security official in Peshawar city told AFP, adding that he believed those killed belonged to the Pakistani Taliban.
Two intelligence officials in Miranshah confirmed the attack, with one saying the drone struck as the militants gathered in a compound for a meeting. He said seven other militants were wounded in the strike.
US drones have frequently targeted Datta Khel, known as a stronghold of the Taliban commander and Al-Qaeda linked warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadar.
The attack was the seventh missile strike in nine days, and the second day in a row that Datta Khel was hit.
On Wednesday another strike in the area killed five militants, according to officials who speak only on condition of anonymity.
Missile attacks doubled in the area last year as the campaign was stepped up, with more than 100 drone strikes killing over 670 people in 2010 compared with 45 strikes that killed 420 in 2009, according to an AFP tally.
Most have been concentrated in North Waziristan, the most notorious Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda bastion in Pakistan, where the United States wants the Pakistan military to launch a ground offensive as soon as possible.
Pakistan says its troops are too overstretched to launch such an assault.
Thursday's attack came a day after a Pakistani court acquitted and freed Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor being held over the lethal shooting of two men in a busy Lahore street in January, sparking small protests across the country.
The spy case had badly hit shaky ties between Washington and Islamabad, as US authorities insisted Davis had diplomatic immunity from prosecution over the deaths and pressed for his release.
$2 million in blood money was finally paid to end the row, fixing a diplomatic rift but causing further resentment among the Pakistani public, who see the covert US drone campaign as a breach of national sovereignty.
The United States does not confirm the drone attacks, but its military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy them in the region.
US officials say the missile strikes have severely weakened Al-Qaeda's leadership and killed high-value targets including the former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
US officials say Pakistan-based militants are helping to escalate the war in Afghanistan, putting up a deadly fight against 140,000 US-led NATO troops there and seeking to bring down the Western-backed government in Kabul.
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