PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — A suspected US missile strike on a militant training camp in Pakistan's tribal belt bordering Afghanistan killed a top Taliban commander and at least 15 other people, officials said Monday.
The attack was the latest in a series on Pakistani soil which have sharply raised tensions between Washington and Islamabad, a key ally in the US campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Officials said the strike in the lawless South Waziristan area on Sunday night killed Haji Omar Khan, a lieutenant of veteran Afghan Taliban chieftain and former anti-Soviet fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani.
"The death toll has gone up to 16 as six more bodies have been recovered from the site. Senior Taliban commander Haji Omar died in the strike," local administration official Mawaz Khan told AFP.
Another government official quoting local sources said up to 20 people were killed, mostly Pakistani Taliban fighters, adding that a team was on its way to the area to investigate.
Khan was active in attacks on US-led and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan, local residents and security officials said.
He was a cousin of late Taliban commander Nek Mohammed, who was killed in 2004 in one of the first apparent US missile strikes in the region.
"Omar was sending fighters into Afghanistan and commanded them in several outings. He did not have any political affiliations and was linked to Haqqani," a security official said on condition of anonymity.
Sunday's strike was the 12th such incident in the past 10 weeks, all of which have been blamed on US-led coalition forces or CIA drones based in Afghanistan.
Many of them have targeted militants who, like Khan, were close to Haqqani, who is increasingly seen in Washington as one of the prime movers behind the escalating unrest in Afghanistan.
A religious school operated by Haqqani was targeted in another suspected US missile strike last Thursday, killing 11 people.
Haqqani was one of the most prominent Afghan commanders who fought the Soviet Red Army between 1978 and 1989. He subsequently became close to Mullah Omar, the leader of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The strike came as the New York Times reported that the United States is refraining from using its special forces on Pakistani territory following a September 3 raid that resulted in civilian casualties and vehement protests from Islamabad.
The US military has stepped up attacks on militants in Pakistani territory since a new civilian government came to power in Islamabad in March, and the incidents have become an issue in the US presidential election.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has promised zero tolerance against violations of his country's sovereignty amid the strikes.
According to The New York Times, after the September 3 raid, Pakistani national security adviser Mahmud Ali Durrani made an unannounced visit to Washington and voiced his country's anger in person to top White House officials, including national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
But while ground raids have stopped, attacks by remotely piloted Predator aircraft, which are operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, have increased sharply in the past three months, the report said.
Pakistani troops on Sunday killed 11 Taliban militants in clashes in a tribal area on the border with Afghanistan which is seen as a safe haven for Islamic extremists, officials said.
The clashes in Bajaur came one day after the military announced it had recaptured an Al-Qaeda and Taliban stronghold in the area after two months of fighting which left 1,500 rebels and 73 soldiers dead.
In one incident, insurgents attacked a security post on the outskirts of Bajaur's main town of Khar. Troops retaliated, killing six rebels, a security official said.
Five more fighters were killed when troops attacked a suspected militant base in Charmang district, another security official said, adding that two militant vehicles were destroyed by helicopter shelling.
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