DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Suspected U.S. missiles struck two vehicles in a Taliban stronghold on Pakistan's side of the border with Afghanistan on Monday, killing 18 alleged militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
The attack in the North Waziristan tribal region came in the final days of a year that has witnessed an unprecedented number of such strikes from drone aircraft flying over Pakistani soil, part of a ramped-up U.S. campaign to take out al-Qaida and Taliban fighters seeking sanctuary outside Afghanistan.
At least 110 such missile strikes have been launched this year — more than doubling last year's total. Nearly all have landed in North Waziristan, a region that hosts several militant groups battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, including the feared Haqqani network.
The six missiles fired Monday struck the vehicles in the Shera Tala village of North Waziristan. Shera Tala lies in Mir Ali district, where militants are heavily concentrated. The identities of the 18 dead were not immediately known.
The vehicles were apparently leaving a compound, and one was carrying a large load of ammunition, magnifying the blasts from the missile strikes, the intelligence officials said.
The three intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media on the record.
Pakistan officially protests the strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and anger tribesmen whose support it needs to fend off extremists. But Islamabad is widely believed to secretly support the strikes and provide intelligence for at least some of them.
U.S. officials rarely discuss the covert, CIA-run missile program. Privately, however, they say it is a crucial tool and has killed several top militant leaders. They also say the drone-fired strikes are very accurate and usually kill militants.
Information from Pakistan's tribal belt is very hard to verify independently. Access to the area is legally restricted, and ongoing conflict there makes it dangerous territory.
The Pakistani Taliban recently kidnapped 23 tribesmen who welcomed Army head Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on a Dec. 7 visit to South Waziristan tribal region, where soldiers launched an offensive in late 2009, officials and tribal elders said.
The kidnappings undermine the government's shaky effort to convince hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians that it is now safe to return to South Waziristan.
Taliban courts in South Waziristan are deciding how to punish the abducted tribesmen, Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told The Associated Press.
"This is a warning to the tribal people to not come to the area because we are still present in South Waziristan," Tariq said by phone.
Some 400,000 civilians, many of them members of the Mehsud tribe, have fled South Waziristan, and many are now staying in Dera Ismail Khan and other cities near the tribal belt.
Despite ongoing efforts by the military to get the civilians to go home, the numbers returning have been small.
"On one side, the government says peace is established in South Waziristan, and on the other our tribesmen are being kidnapped," said Maulana Esamuddin Mehsud, one of two Mehsud tribal leaders who said they learned of the kidnappings from the victims' relatives.
The Mehsud tribe's territory in South Waziristan was long the primary base for the Pakistani Taliban, and members of the tribe dominate the militant group's top ranks. Dozens of pro-government tribal elders have been slaughtered by the insurgents.
Meanwhile, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported that the Pakistan Navy had successfully test fired a range of surface-to-air missiles on Monday.
Citing a navy press release, APP reported that all the live missiles had hit their targets. The number of missiles was not reported.
Dawar reported from Peshawar. Associated Press writer Hussain Afzal in Parachinar contributed to this report.