PESHAWAR, Pakistan – At least nine tribesmen died Tuesday when a barrage of mortars hit a Pakistani village near the Afghan border where about 300 people had gathered to discuss how to evict foreign militants from their areas, officials said.
The Pakistani army blamed militants for the attack in Sheikh Ziyarat (search), a village near Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, and the site of a series of military operations in recent months.
The attack came a day before tribal elders were to launch a hunt of the same village for Abdullah Mehsud (search), a former Guantanamo Bay (search) prisoner who is accused of kidnapping two Chinese engineers and targeting Pakistani security forces in South Waziristan.
Spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said nine people, including tribal elders, were killed and seven others injured when rockets struck a convoy of cars and pickup trucks carrying elders, security forces and government officials near Sheikh Ziyarat. He said soldiers returned fire in the direction of the attack, but it wasn't clear if any of the attackers were hurt.
"It is tragic. They (the militants) attacked people who were on a peace mission," Sultan told state-run Pakistan Television.
However, two intelligence officials in Wana, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 10 people were killed and at least five others, all civilians, were wounded when the mortars hit.
It was not immediately possible to reconcile the differing reports.
Tribal elder Azizullah Mehsud said about a dozen mortars hit as elders and about 300 Sheikh Ziyarat residents discussed plans to search the village Wednesday for fugitive militant leader Abdullah Mehsud with the help of government troops.
"I saw five or six bodies," said the tribal elder, who escaped unharmed. He added that the death toll could rise because dozens of people had been taken to a hospital.
Abdullah Mehsud, 28, is wanted by authorities for involvement in the kidnapping earlier this month of two Chinese engineers and attacks on Pakistani security forces. He returned to Pakistan in March after about two years' detention at the U.S. military base in Cuba. Pakistan security officials say he has since forged ties with al-Qaida.
Authorities say hundreds of Central Asian, Afghan and Arab militants are in South Waziristan, also a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.