ISLAMABAD – Suspected U.S. missiles pounded militant hideouts Thursday in the tribal belt near Afghanistan where Pakistani troops are building up for a major offensive against the country's top Taliban leader.
The strikes, which killed at least eight people and were described by Pakistani officials and witnesses as coming from unmanned drone aircraft, appeared not to be directly connected to Pakistan's preparations in South Waziristan.
But they came as Pakistan's military on Thursday continued its own airstrikes and shelling, which for days has pummeled suspected militant positions ahead of an expected attack by ground forces. The military said it had killed another 34 militants in its separate, seven-week-old offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley region.
Washington strongly backs Pakistan's recent efforts to confront the Taliban head-on after years of failed offensives and unsuccessful peace deals. But officials on both sides have been careful to avoid suggestions America is directly involved in any military campaign — something that triggers nationalist anger in Pakistan.
Pakistan says the operation against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan is in its preparatory stages only, and its attacks on militant strongholds are in retaliation for militant attacks on security forces.
Officials have conceded Pakistan is coordinating with U.S. forces in Afghanistan about cutting off potential escape routes into Afghanistan for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who are believed to have made bases in the tribal region.
In Thursday's suspected U.S. strikes, Shahab Ali Shah, the top administrative official in South Waziristan, said missiles hit close to the villages of Gharlamai and Nandaran.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media, said a training center of Taliban commander Malang Wazir between the two villages was the target, and that nine people were killed.
Two other intelligence officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said four missiles were fired at two sites. They put the casualties at eight dead and about two dozen wounded.
Ali Khan Wazir, a shopkeeper, said drone aircraft had been flying over the area for hours before the explosions. He said Taliban vehicles were seen rushing to the scenes.
U.S. missiles fired from drones have repeatedly struck South Waziristan, most recently on Sunday after nearly a one-month lull. The strikes have generated a backlash over civilian casualties.
Washington rarely confirms or denies the attacks.
The highly anticipated operation in South Waziristan is seen as a potential turning point in the yearslong and sometimes halfhearted fight against militancy in Pakistan. It could also help curb Taliban attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.
It comes on the heels of a similar operation in the Swat Valley, but fighting in the lawless tribal region will likely be the toughest yet for Pakistan's military, testing both its combat capability and the government's will to see it through.
The Swat offensive is winding down, commanders say, with more than 1,300 militants and 100 soldiers killed.
A humanitarian crisis remains, with more than 2 million people displaced by the fighting and more than 230,000 of them living in refugee camps. International agencies say the emergency could become much worse if there is a further exodus from Waziristan.
Martin Mogwanja, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Pakistan, said it was not known how bad the refugee situation was in Waziristan because it was too dangerous for most aid workers to go there, but agencies are preparing for an exodus as the offensive takes off.
"Any civilian population who is caught in the vicinity of a military conflict is exposed to great danger," Mogwanja told reporters in Islamabad. "Every effort has to be made by those engaged in a conflict to protect innocent civilians, to ensure they do not come into harms way, and that every opportunity is given to civilians to move to safe areas."
Convoys of tanks and heavy equipment have been moving into nearby towns this week, and the stream of residents leaving the region in fear of being caught in the fighting has intensified, local officials say.