ISLAMABAD – U.S. drones fired a barrage of missiles at a vehicle and a house in a Pakistani tribal area bordering Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least five suspected militants, Pakistani officials said.
The strikes in the North Waziristan tribal area were the first since news that a top commander of the powerful Haqqani militant network was killed in a drone strike late last month, also in the tribal region.
Two intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media, said U.S. drones fired seven missiles at targets in the village of Degan in an area of North Waziristan close to the Afghan border.
They said the area is dominated by anti-American militant commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, but they did not know whether the men killed belonged to his group.
Bahadur's faction is alleged to have been involved in frequent attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but generally shies away from carrying out operations inside Pakistan. Several recent drone strikes have killed militants affiliated with Bahadur's group.
The CIA-run drone program is controversial in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis call it an infringement on the nation's sovereignty and maintain that it causes a high number of civilian casualties, a charge the U.S. denies. Washington maintains the program is a necessary and effective tool in combatting militants.
A drone strike a week ago in North Waziristan killed Badruddin Haqqani, one of the sons of the founder of the Haqqani network. The U.S. has blamed the group for a number of high-profile attacks in Afghanistan and considers it one of the key factors in undermining security there.
Badruddin was considered the organization's day-to-day operations commander, and was labeled as a terrorist by the U.S. State Department, along with his father and two of his brothers.
The presence of the mostly Afghan Haqqani network in North Waziristan has been a major source of friction between Pakistan and the U.S. The Obama administration has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan prevent the group from using its territory to launch attacks in Afghanistan, but Islamabad has refused — a stance many analysts believe is driven by the country's strong historical ties to the Haqqani network's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani.
North Waziristan, where many of the U.S. drone strikes occur, is the one tribal area where Pakistani forces have yet to carry out a military offensive against militants. The U.S. has been pushing Islamabad to move against militants in the area but so far, there's been no sign the Pakistani military is preparing to launch a major offensive.
Meanwhile, a group of gunmen on motorcycles in the southwestern province of Baluchistan killed seven Shiite Muslims, as violence against the minority sect continues to escalate.
Senior police officer Wazir Khan Nasir said four gunmen riding two motorcycles stopped a local bus near the central vegetable market of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan.
The gunmen identified seven people belong to the Shiite Hazara community, forced them off the bus and shot five of them dead. Two tried to run away but the gunmen chased them down and killed them in a nearby street, Nasir said. Hazaras are an ethnic group found in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are predominantly Shiite. They've often been persecuted by Sunni hardliners who consider Shiites to be heretics.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Baluchistan is the scene of an insurgency by nationalist groups who demand more rights and a greater share of the income generated through natural gas and minerals extracted from the province. Islamist militants and the al-Qaida-affiliated sectarian group Lashker-e-Jhangvi is also operating in the province.
Also Saturday, a judge in the eastern city of Lahore rejected a request for bail made by Malik Ishaq, the founder of the banned Laskhar-e-Jangvi militant group, a senior police official Ijaz Shafi said.
He said Ishaq was arrested this week for making a speech inciting sectarian hatred against Shiites.
The Sunni group is blamed for scores of attacks on Shiites in Baluchistan and elsewhere in the country.