WANA, Pakistan - A suspected U.S. missile strike on a Pakistani madrasa killed six people, including foreigners, on Monday in tribal lands regarded as an al Qaeda and Taliban hotbed, intelligence officials said.
The target of the pre-dawn attack was a house close to a madrasa used by militants near Azam Warsak village, about 20 km west of Wana, the main town of the South Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan.
The attack, one of many in recent months, was launched hours before Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was due to meet President George W. Bush in Washington for talks that will focus on the conduct of the war against terrorism.
The United States, alarmed by rising casualties among Western forces in Afghanistan, wants Pakistan to do more to contain the al Qaeda and Taliban threat in its territory.
A Pakistani military spokesman confirmed an incident had occurred in Waziristan, but said he was unaware of details, though intelligence officials in Wana gave a clearer picture.
One official told Reuters the madrasa, or religious school, was a militant base and the owner of the targeted house, a tribesman named Malik Sallat Khan, had ties with the militants.
"The owner of the house and seminary had some links with militants, and the madrasa was not used for education, but as a compound," he said.
Another official, who also declined to be identified, said at least three missiles hit the house and seminary, killing six people, including foreigners whose nationalities had still to be identified. Three people were wounded.
Residents said they heard the sound of a drone aircraft engine, suggesting that the missile may have been fired by a U.S.-controlled unmanned Predator.
"We had heard the sound of a drone engine just before the explosions," said Zia-ur-Rehman, a local tribesmen.
"These drones have been flying since late Sunday night."
Spokesmen for NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan denied involvement in any cross-border strike, but could not speak for the CIA, which also operates drones.
"NO PRIOR INFORMATION"
Despite Islamabad's repeated protests, several drone missile attacks have been carried out this year by U.S. forces against militants linked to al Qaeda and Taliban hiding in the northwest tribal lands near the Afghan border.
Pakistan's military spokesman said he had little information, and noted that U.S. coalition forces were no longer informing the Pakistan army over every missile strike.
"Some incident did take place but what kind of strike it was, whether it was missile or rocket attack or bomb explosion, we don't know," said Major General Athar Abbas.
"Coalition forces don't share information about any strike with us prior to any attack," he said. Security in northwest Pakistan has deteriorated in the past few weeks.
Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, whose fighters were blamed for many of the suicide bomb attacks on Pakistani security forces and politicians last year, has suspended peace talks and threatened to unleash a fresh wave of violence.
There had been a lull in the violence since the new government came to power in March after elections in February.
Gilani's government embarked on a strategy of dialogue with the militants, although there has been limited military action in some parts of the semi-autonomous tribal region where unrest has flared.
Western governments fear the Pakistani strategy provided the militants with breathing space to increase the flow of fighters across the border to fuel the Afghan insurgency.
Separately, a bomb planted on a bicycle killed a boy and wounded eight policemen near the northwestern garrison town of Kohat on Monday, police said. The policemen had been aboard a bus taking them on duty when the remote-controlled device exploded.
Additional reporting by Mohammad Hashim, Haji Mujtaba, Alamghir Bitani and Hafiz Wazir
Writing by Kamran Haider; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sanjeev Miglani
© 2008 Reuters