In what could herald an intensified U.S. campaign against Islamic insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a suspected American missile attack killed at least nine people near the Afghan border, local officials said Wednesday.
It was not immediately known whether any senior insurgent figures were among the dead, but officials in the South Waziristan tribal region said those killed included “foreigners,” often used to mean Al Qaeda operatives and commanders from outside Pakistan.
American military officials in Afghanistan and the U.S. Embassy in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, disavowed knowledge of the strike, which tribal sources and Pakistani military officials said was carried out late Tuesday. But such attacks against Al Qaeda members and other significant militant figures by CIA-operated drones are rarely acknowledged publicly by Pakistani or American officials.
Adding to the air of crisis, a late-night suicide strike outside a police station in the eastern city of Lahore killed at least five people as crowds gathered to begin celebrating Pakistan’s Independence Day today.
The incidents, coupled with a recent bout of intense fighting in Bajaur, another tribal area abutting the Afghan border, came as Pakistan wrestled with a growing political battle over demands that President Pervez Musharraf step down or face impeachment.
In a boost to the impeachment drive by the ruling coalition, the regional assembly of southern Sindh province overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding resolution Wednesday calling on the president to agree to a vote of confidence by regional and national lawmakers or relinquish his post. Two other regional parliaments approved a similar resolution this week.
Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally who until late last year was also chief of Pakistan’s military, has resisted attempts by the 5-month-old ruling coalition, made up of former opposition parties, to oust him.
The president, a onetime elite commando, has shown no signs of acquiescing to critics’ demands. But some longtime allies have been deserting him or distancing themselves as public pressure mounts for him to step aside. Media reports for days have been rife with speculation that Musharraf’s resignation is imminent.
Addressing a pre-Independence Day ceremony Wednesday night, Musharraf made no direct reference to his predicament, but accused unnamed foes of “conspiracies” against state institutions.
Pakistan’s powerful army, now led by onetime Musharraf protege Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has signaled that it will seek to remain neutral in the political confrontation. In the past, the military has often intervened when it perceives civilian governments as being in turmoil.
The escalating political tensions in Pakistan paralleled the most serious outbreak of fighting in months along the Afghan frontier. Thousands of people have fled amid battles between government forces and militants holed up in the arid, rugged border zone, where the writ of law carries little force.
The army said it killed about 25 militants in airstrikes Wednesday.
The Bush administration has long complained that Pakistan is not doing enough to hunt down militant leaders sheltering in the tribal lands. The government that took over after defeating Musharraf’s party in February elections has taken a mixed approach, mounting some military operations against the insurgents but also negotiating with militant chieftains.
Overt U.S. military action in the tribal areas is constrained because of concerns about infringing Pakistan’s sovereignty, but the government has been told that continued huge infusions of American military aid are dependent on cooperation in moving against the insurgents.
At least two Al Qaeda militant leaders have been killed in the tribal areas this year, including Abu Khabab Masri in a missile strike last month in South Waziristan.
Elsewhere in the tribal belt, the leader of a banned group that espouses a strict Taliban-style social code was killed Wednesday by unknown gunmen, his associates said. Haji Namdar was the leader of a militant organization called the Vice and Virtue Movement in the Khyber region, which is a key route for U.S. military supplies bound for Pakistan.
This summer, Pakistani military forces moved against Taliban-linked militants in Khyber, who also were menacing nearby Peshawar, the main city in the country’s northwest.
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.