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A rain of drone-fired missiles killed 14 suspected militants Tuesday in northern Pakistan, local officials said, as the US and the Pakistani Army upped the pressure on a group believed to be responsible for the failed Times Square bombing attempt.
North Waziristan, where the attacks were launched, has been a stronghold of Al Qaeda and its ally Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani wing of the Taliban. American officials claim to have evidence that TTP trained Faisal Shahzad, the accused Times Square bomber, though a spokesperson for the TTP has denied that.
Counts varied of how many missiles were fired from the drones, with CNN reporting that 18 struck two vehicles and several compounds in succession. This was the third US drone attack on the region since the Times Square bomb attempt on May 1, although The New York Times reports that there is "no indication that the strikes on Tuesday were retaliation for the bombing attempt."
As is customary, American military officials would not confirm that US drones launched the missiles. The US is the only force known to be operating the unmanned planes in the area, which it has done since 2008, according to the BBC.
A low estimate of militant kills by drones in Pakistan so far this year is 152, according to the New America Foundation. (See the Washington think tank’s map of drone strikes in Pakistan here.) The strikes are also believed to have killed hundreds of innocent villagers, stirring public anger that terrorist groups have sought to capitalize on. Pakistan’s government has also publicly said the attacks fuel support for militants, though it is believed to tacitly support them.
The TTP founder, warlord Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike last August. His young and reportedly ruthless successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, vowed revenge for his death. He was reportedly killed a missile attack himself, but resurfaced in April, threatening to attack US cities, according to AFP:
His cousin and the TTP's so-called master trainer of suicide bombers, Qari Hussain, claimed responsibility for the May 1 bomb plot in New York.
Although the claim was initially dismissed, Washington says it now has evidence that the TTP was behind the attack and that the Pakistani-American who allegedly drove the car bomb, Faisal Shahzad, as working at its behest.
Why Shazhad, an MBA who was raised in Pakistan and has a wife and kids, may have turned to terrorism is unclear. Washington has urged Islamabad to act in rooting out terrorists and ridding itself of environments that produce them, though it faces significant challenges, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
"We still see some soft corner in the heart of the military establishment for other militant groups. So it's at least likely that the Pakistani military at this time – after putting so much pressure against TTP – won't go after other groups and risk losing the ground they have made against the TTP," says [Abdul Basit, researcher at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad.]
The US may not let Pakistan continue their narrow focus on TTP, however. Much may hinge on what groups – if any – Shahzad interacted with in Pakistan. If the TTP alone were involved, the push for a full-scale North Waziristan offensive would lessen.
Tuesday's reported strike followed fierce fighting Monday between militants and the Pakistani Army in tribal villages near the Afghanistan border. About 200 Taliban attacked an advancing military unit, the Daily Times newspaper quoted officials as saying. Casualties in the shootout were lopsided, with nine soldiers and 40 TTP dead. The Pakistani military launched an offensive into the northern district of Orazkai Agency in mid-March, after militants retreated there following an Army push up through the south.
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