A pair of U.S. drone strikes in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border killed 13 people Thursday, including a senior militant commander who had a truce with the Pakistani military, intelligence officials and residents said.
Five Pakistani security officials said the commander, Maulvi Nazir, was reportedly among nine people killed in a missile strike on a house in the village of Angoor Adda in the South Waziristan tribal region early Thursday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Nazir's killing could prove to be a contentious issue between Washington and Islamabad, which is believed to have struck a nonaggression pact with Nazir ahead of the Pakistani military's 2009 operation against militants in South Waziristan.
Militants under Nazir's command focused their attacks on American forces in neighbouring Afghanistan, earning the militant leader the enmity of the U.S. But Pakistan's military viewed Nazir and militant chiefs like him as key to keeping the peace internally because they do not attack Pakistani targets.
Residents in both Angoor Adda and Wana, the biggest town in South Waziristan, said they heard announcements on mosque loudspeakers announcing Nazir's death. One resident, Ajaz Khan, told The Associated Press by telephone that 5,000 to 10,000 people attended the funeral of Nazir and six other people in held in Angoor Adda.
Nazir attacked by suicide bomber in November
Reports of individual deaths are difficult to independently verify. It is difficult for Pakistani and foreign journalists to travel to the remote areas where many of these strikes occur, and the U.S. rarely comments on its secretive drone program.
The second drone strike took place near Mir Ali, the main town of the North Waziristan tribal region. One missile hit a vehicle near the town, followed by another missile when people rushed to the vehicle to help people in the car. The officials say four people were killed in the strike, although the identities of the dead were not immediately known.
Nazir was attacked by a suicide bomber in November as he was arriving at an office he used to meet with locals and hear their complaints. Nazir and more than a dozen other people were wounded in the attack, and seven people were killed.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on rival militants who have been jockeying with Nazir for power in South Waziristan.
Nazir outraged many Pakistanis in June when he announced that he would not allow any polio vaccinations in territory under his control until the U.S. stops drone attacks in the region. Pakistan is one of three countries where polio is still endemic. Nine workers helping in anti-polio vaccination campaigns were killed last month by militant gunmen.
Death could complicate fight against militants
The former chief of intelligence in northwest Pakistan, retired brigadier Asad Munir, said Nazir's killing will complicate the fight against militants in the tribal region, and could prompt Nazir's group to carry out retaliatory attacks against the Pakistani army in South Waziristan.
U.S. drone program
America's use of drones has increased substantially under President Barack Obama. According to the Long War Journal, which tracks drone strikes, there were 35 strikes in Pakistan during 2008, the last year President George W. Bush was in office.
In 2009, that number went up to 53 and then shot up to 117 in 2010, the year with the most drone strikes in Pakistani territory. Last year, the U.S. carried out 46 strikes, and the Thursday strike that killed Maulvi Nazir was the first of 2013.
The American drone program is extremely controversial in Pakistan where it is seen as an infringement of the country's sovereignty. And while the U.S. maintains that it targets militants, many Pakistanis complain that innocent civilians have also been killed.
—The Associated Press
The drone strikes will also raise questions among military commanders here who would like the U.S. to use its firepower against the Pakistani Taliban, which attacks domestic targets, and not against militants like Nazir who aren't seen as posing as much of a threat to the Pakistani state, Munir said.
He added that the risk now for Pakistan is that the remnants of Nazir's group could join ranks with the Pakistani Taliban in its war with the government and army.
The drone program has killed a number of top militant commanders over the past year, including al-Qaeda's then-No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who died in a drone strike in June on the Pakistani village of Khassu Khel in North Waziristan.
In August, another missile strike in North Waziristan killed Badruddin Haqqani, who has been described as the day-to-day operations commander of the Haqqani network, which has been blamed by the U.S. for carrying out some of the most high-profile attacks against American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.