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Officials: US Missiles Allegedly Kill 10 In Pakistan

CHRIS BRUMMITT   01/14/10 04:14 PM ET   AP

ISLAMABAD — The leader of the Pakistani Taliban was apparently targeted in a U.S. missile strike on a meeting of militant commanders close to the Afghan border Thursday, but he escaped unhurt, Pakistani officials and militants said. Twelve insurgents were believed killed.

The death of Hakimullah Mehsud would be a major victory for both for Washington and Islamabad in their fight against Islamist militants. Mehsud appeared on a video released last week sitting next to the Jordanian militant who killed seven CIA employees in a suicide attack in December in Afghanistan.

Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban movement, which is linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan, has also claimed responsibility for scores of bloody suicide bombings in Pakistan in recent months against military, civilian and government targets.

The U.S. missile strike was the eighth such attack in two weeks in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, an unprecedented volley of drone attacks since the CIA-led program began in earnest two years ago. The surge signals the Obama administration's reliance on the tactic despite official protest from Islamabad.

One or more unmanned U.S spy planes fired at least two missiles into a large complex that had been used as a religious school in the past in the Pasalkot area close to the border with South Waziristan soon after dawn broke, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

The dead militants included two foreigners, while at least eight others were wounded, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media on the record.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said that he had no information on the strike but that Mehsud's death would be a good thing. America does not acknowledge to being behind the program and its officials rarely talk about it directly.

"He either is, or was, a very bad person," Holbrooke told foreign correspondents in the capital, Islamabad.

Three Pakistani intelligence officials and four militants told the AP that Mehsud was not among the dead.

He had been expected to attend the meeting, but authorities were still trying to determine whether he ever made it to the session, the officials said. They cited wireless communications intercepts tracking Mehsud's movements.

The militants said Mehsud was alive, safe and traveling. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and for personal security reasons.

Confirming the casualties in U.S. missile strikes is very difficult and often takes weeks. Pakistani officials are believed to provide some of the intelligence used in the strikes, but it is unclear whether they have access to the high definition video images captured by the drones.

Mehsud's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike last August in neighboring South Waziristan.

For 18 days after that strike, militants denied his death even as U.S. and Pakistani officials said they were increasingly confident he had been killed.

Hakimullah Mehsud, 28, has a reputation as a particularly ruthless militant. He has taken responsibility for brazen strikes on Pakistani civilians, including the bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar last June and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier in the year.

His men have also been blamed for attacking U.S. and NATO supply convoys traveling through northwestern Pakistan en route to Afghanistan. He first appeared in public to journalists in November 2008, when he offered to take reporters on a ride in a U.S. Humvee taken from a supply truck heading to Afghanistan.

There is a 10 million rupee ($120,000) bounty on his head.

There have been more than 70 U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan over the last two years, according to a tally by The Associated Press. At least 700 people are reported to have been killed, many of them militants, including several foreign al-Qaida leaders, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.

In public, Pakistani government officials criticize the strikes and say the United States, which is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, is acting unilaterally. But there is little doubt Islamabad agrees to at least some of the attacks and provides targeting information for them.

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad, Anwarullah Khan in Khar and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.

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Filed by T.J. Ortenzi  |