Suspected American drones fired several missiles into three militant hideouts near the Afghan border on Sunday, killing nine Pakistani Taliban fighters, intelligence officials said.
The strikes targeted the group's hideouts in the South Waziristan tribal region, the three officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The identity of the killed militants was not immediately known, they said, but two important commanders of the Pakistani Taliban — including the head of a training unit for suicide bombers — may be among them.
Sunday's drone attack was the third suspected U.S. drone strike in five days. One such hit late Wednesday night killed a top Pakistani militant commander, Maulvi Nazir, accused of carrying out deadly attacks against American and other targets across the border in Afghanistan. That attack was followed close on by another strike on Thursday in the North Waziristan tribal area.
Islamabad opposes the use of U.S. drones on its territory, but is believed to have tacitly approved some strikes in past. The drone campaign also infuriates many Pakistanis who see them as a violation of their country's sovereignty. Many Pakistanis complain that innocent civilians have also been killed, something the U.S. rejects.
But an attack like Sunday's may be less likely to anger the Pakistani military and public because it targeted militants believed to have been going after targets in Pakistan and not in neighboring Afghanistan.
The Pakistani intelligence officials said that informants had told them one of the two dead commanders was Wali Muhammad Mahsud, also known as Toofan, who headed a wing of the group that trained suicide bombers. His predecessor, Qari Husain Mehsud, was believed to have been killed in a U.S. missile strike in late 2011.
Mahsud was part of the Pakistani Taliban that have waged a bloody war against the Pakistani state by targeting army, police, government officials, civilians and even religious leaders who wouldn't agree to their interpretation of Islam. The Pakistani Taliban demand that the state should sever ties with the U.S. and amend the constitution to enforce a Sharia based Islamic system in the country.
In December, a Taliban suicide bomber killed a top government minister, Bashir Ahmad Bilour, who came from an anti-militant political party in northwest Pakistan and abducted and beheaded several Pakistani paramilitary troops and tribal police.
The militant commander, Nazir, who was killed last Wednesday was also part of the Taliban but he led a faction that agreed to a cease-fire with the Pakistan military in 2009 and did not attack domestic targets.
As a result, while his death is likely to be seen in Washington as affirmation of the necessity of its controversial drone program, it could cause more friction in already tense relations with Pakistan.
Analysts say Nazir's killing is likely to complicate the Pakistani army's fight against the local and foreign al-Qaida linked militants holed up in the country's tribal region. They say his fighters may turn their guns toward Pakistani troops and may join the Pakistani Taliban's fight against the state.
Still, Nazir outraged many Pakistanis in June when he announced that he would not allow any polio vaccinations in territory under his control until the U.S. stops drone attacks in the region.
Washington wants Pakistan to launch a military operation in North Waziristan, believed to be the last stronghold of many of the militant groups. But Islamabad had been refusing, saying it does not have enough troops and resources to do that.
In absence of such an operation, the U.S. relies more on drone strikes to take out militants. The program has killed a number of top militant commanders including Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was al-Qaida's No. 2 when he was killed in a June strike.
Associated Press Writer Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report.