MIR ALI, Pakistan – A suspected U.S. missile strike in a Pakistani tribal region killed at least five alleged militants Friday, officials said, showing America's unwillingness to abandon the tactic even as Pakistani officials say it could interfere with army offensives in the northwest.
Also Friday, Pakistan's top court overturned opposition leader Nawaz Sharif's conviction on hijacking charges stemming from the 1999 coup against his government, clearing the last obstacle to his running for office.
The missile strike hit a house in Gariwam village in North Waziristan, said two intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media on the record.
Local government official Anayat Ullah also confirmed a missile hit the village, while resident Ahmad Raza said he heard Taliban in the area saying five of their comrades were dead.
Over the past year, the U.S. has launched dozens of missiles strikes in Pakistan's northwest regions bordering Afghanistan. The North and South Waziristan sections of the country's semiautonomous tribal belt have been frequent targets because of the heavy Taliban and al-Qaida presence there.
U.S. officials rarely acknowledge or comment on the individual strikes, but some have defended the tactic, saying it has killed several top al-Qaida fighters. The U.S. is keen on ridding Pakistan of safe havens for militants involved in attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Though many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing the drone-fired missiles, Pakistan formally protests the assaults, saying they violate its sovereignty and stir anger among tribes in the affected areas.
The army has said keeping the Waziristan tribes happy is key right now in particular, because it needs their help, or neutrality, as it prepares to launch a full-scale offensive aimed at capturing or killing Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's Taliban chief.
South Waziristan is his base, and U.S. missiles have hit targets associated with him.
Pakistan's political stability has also been a source of concern to the U.S., with Sharif's status a constant source of tension between him and the ruling party of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
In its decision Friday, the Supreme Court said there was no evidence to support Sharif's past conviction.
Sharif spokesman Sadiqul Farooq said it brought a close to the final criminal case against the two-time prime minister, paving the way for his return to public office. According to recent polls, Sharif is the country's most popular politician.
"We knew that Nawaz Sharif is innocent, but today's court order also proved that he had been wrongly convicted," Farooq said.
Pakistan's army ousted Sharif's government in a bloodless coup on Oct. 12, 1999, the day Sharif removed Pervez Musharraf from his post as army chief and refused to allow the general's plane to land at a Karachi airport while returning from a foreign trip.
After assuming power, Musharraf's military government charged Sharif with ordering the hijacking of Musharraf's plane. Sharif argued his actions only aimed to avert a coup that was already under way.
Friday's ruling was the third in the past two months to lift a ban on Sharif's participating in elections. Sharif has made no secret of his desire to return to public office but has said he does not want early elections.
Political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said Friday's court ruling could lead to better ties between Sharif and Zardari and "will contribute to the stabilization of the political scene."
Also Friday, two separate bombs in northwest Pakistan damaged a pair of oil tankers headed for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
One of the bombs struck a tanker in the Jamrud area of the Khyber tribal region, causing a blaze that spread to a nearby grocery store, said Rashed Khan, a local government official. Later, the grocer's dead body was retrieved from the rubble, Khan said.
The second bomb damaged a tanker in the Landi Kotal area of Khyber, he said.
The tribal region is home to the famed Khyber Pass, a major transit route for fuel and supplies headed to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Militants have routinely attacked vehicles along the pass.
Elsewhere in Pakistan's northwest, the army proceeded with operations against militants in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts. Two soldiers died in a roadside bombing during the previous 24 hours, according to a military statement released Friday afternoon.
The deaths were a sign that danger persists in the region, even as the army has declared it largely cleared of militants and Pakistanis displaced by fighting have started to return by the thousands.