Suspected U.S. missile strike kills 26 in Pakistan

PARACHINAR, Pakistan Mon Feb 16, 2009 12:23pm GMT

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PARACHINAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A suspected U.S. missile strike killed at least 26 people, many of them Taliban militants, in Pakistan's Kurram tribal region on the Afghan border on Monday, intelligence officials said.

The missiles, believed to have been fired by a pilotless drone aircraft, hit a school that was once used by Afghan refugees' children, before militants moved in around two years ago, according to villagers.

"Afghan Taliban were holding an important meeting there when the missiles were fired," one of intelligence official in the area said.

The target was in a mountainous north-western region called Sarpul, on the outskirts of Baggan village. A militant in Kurram put the death toll lower, but said Afghan and Pakistani Taliban were among those killed.

The attack was the first in the Kurram tribal region and came two days after a missile strike in the South Waziristan tribal region killed at least 25 mostly Central Asian fighters believed to have al Qaeda links.

After the attack in Kurram, Taliban had surrounded the area and were not allowing anyone near, witnesses said.

"They have taken nine bodies to Afghanistan while the rest of them are being buried here," one intelligence official said.

It was not immediately known if there were any senior Taliban or al Qaeda figures among the dead.

Kurram's top administrator, Arshad Majeed Mohmand, confirmed the strike and said according to his information three missiles were fired, but he had no details about the casualties.

CONTROVERSY, COMPLAINTS AND DENIALS

This was the fourth attack since U.S. President Barack Obama took office last month, showing there was no change in policy since the last year of the Bush administration, when drone attacks against militant targets on Pakistani soil multiplied.

Pakistan's civilian government, elected a year ago, and the army have complained that the U.S. missile strikes are counterproductive and have fanned an Islamist insurgency across northwest Pakistan.

A senior U.S. lawmaker, Senator Dianne Feinstein, kicked off a fresh controversy when she told a Senate hearing last week that drones were being operated and flown from an air base inside Pakistan.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi denied this.

"Pakistan has not allowed these drone attacks, there was no permission before nor is there any now," he told reporters in the central city of Multan late on Sunday.

"This is happening without any understanding and it is affecting our sovereignty, and we think that it is causing collateral damage."

(Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani and Asim Tanvir; writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)

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