Suspected U.S. drone kills 3 militants in Pakistan - officials

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:58pm GMT

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - Unmanned U.S. aircraft fired missiles into a home in a tribal region of western Pakistan on Wednesday, killing at least three militants, local intelligence officials said, in an attack that ended a lengthy pause in drone strikes that have become the mainstay of U.S. efforts to quash militants fuelling violence across the border in Afghanistan.

The officials said the missiles hit in the outskirts of the town of Miranshah in the North Waziristan, killing at least three. Militants often dispute official versions of such attacks and death tolls.

A source in Washington confirmed that a U.S.-operated drone had been fired at a militant target in Pakistan. The source said that no well-known militants were believed to have been targeted, injured or wounded in the attack.

The strike was the first such attack since November 17 and could deepen anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan, which was already running high after a November 26 cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

That incident triggered a deep chill in already troubled U.S.-Pakistan relations, prompting Pakistan to close off NATO supply routes into Afghanistan.

Drones armed with missiles have played a significant role in U.S. counter-terrorism operations as the Obama administration winds down the war in Afghanistan and Washington's focus expands to militant havens in countries including Pakistan.

The United States vacated a remote air base, used to stage classified drone flights against militants, in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province last month. Pakistan had asked U.S. forces to leave the base after the November air strike.

The Obama administration contends that drone strikes have helped weaken the central leadership of al Qaeda and put associated militant groups on the defensive.

Many such groups operate in Pakistan's unruly northwestern tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

U.S. officials denied that the drop-off in lethal drone strikes was part of a deliberate moratorium on such flights linked to the political and diplomatic uproar over the air strike. Officials maintained that lethal drone strikes were based on the availability of targeting intelligence, and implied that such intelligence recently had been in short supply.

For whatever reason, the latest lethal drone strike appears to demonstrate that if there was any kind of moratorium on such attacks, it has now been lifted.

(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Mark Hosenball in Washington; writing by Qasim Nauman; editing by Louise Ireland and Mohammad Zargham)