Twenty people were killed last night in a missile strike by CIA Predator drone
aircraft inside Pakistan amid reports that Washington is intensifying
its aerial bombardment of the country after being forced to back away
from plans to send in ground forces.
The attack -
the 18th in the past few weeks - targeted what was described as a
"militant compound" close to Wana, the main town of the South
Waziristan tribal agency that is the fiefdom of top jihadi commander
Baitullah Mehsud - a man closely linked to al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.
The latest strike and others carried out by the CIA were described
last night by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as
"Such actions are proving counter-productive to (the Government's)
efforts to isolate the extremists and militants from the tribal
population which is involved in the formation of tribal lashkars
(armies)," Mr Gilani said.
In Islamabad yesterday, the first serious moves at peace talks with
the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan began when a tribal jirga
(assembly) convened at the instigation of both governments.
The jirga brings together more than 50 tribal elders from both sides
of the Durand Line that notionally divides the two countries, and is
seen as a modest first attempt to begin negotiations with the
Participants said the viability of peace talks was likely to form
the basis of the discussions, with strong opposition certain to emerge
against US policy, including the Predator drone strikes, as well as the
presence ofUS and other coalition forces in Afghanistan.
A leading participant, former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan
Rustam Shah Mohmand, said it would be impossible to deal with the
Taliban as long as Western forces remained in Afghanistan.
Sources close to the jirga said the latest Predator strike, and
reports that Washington was intensifying its aerial bombardment, were
likely to reinforce sentiment in favour of the militants and make it
even more difficult to achieve peace.
Washington appears to take a different view. The New York Times
reported yesterday that the CIA had intensified Predator strikes in the
region after objections from Islamabad forced it to retreat from its
plan to send ground forces in.
According to the paper, Washington is said to believe that Pakistan
regards the Predator strikes as "less objectionable" in terms of
violating the country's sovereignty than ground attacks.
A Bush administration official told the Times: "There's a balance
between respecting full Pakistani sovereignty, even in places where
they're not capable of exercising that sovereignty, and the need for
our force protection."
As with most of the previous attacks, yesterday's strike appeared to
have failed to hit high value targets, initial reports said. Just one
of the 18 attacks carried out in recent weeks is said to have killed a
major al-Qa'ida figure. The rest claimed mostly civilian lives,
provoking greater hostility towards Washington.