ISLAMABAD: Missiles from U.S. drones slammed into militant hideouts overnight in northwestern Pakistan, killing 13 suspected insurgents and marking the resumption of the CIA-led program after a nearly six-month break, officials said Thursday.
The strikes were swiftly condemned by the Pakistani government, with the Foreign Ministry saying in a statement that they were a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity.
The strikes came just days after a five-hour siege of Pakistan’s busiest airport ended with 36 people, including 10 militants, killed. The audacious attack raised concerns about whether Pakistan was capable of dealing with the Pakistani Taliban, which said it carried out the assault along with an Uzbek militant group.
It was not immediately clear if the drone strikes were connected to the airport attack. Pakistan routinely condemns drone strikes even when they target armed groups at war with the government.
The Pakistani government had asked the U.S. to refrain from drone strikes while it was trying to negotiate a peace deal with the militants, but even before the airport siege those talks had largely collapsed.
Now the focus has shifted to whether Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will authorize a large-scale military offensive against the North Waziristan tribal areas where the militants are headquartered.
In the first strike, which came late Wednesday, a suspected American drone fired two missiles at a militant hideout in North Waziristan near the Afghan border, killing three militants.
Then, early Thursday, another suspected U.S. missile strike targeted a separate militant compound in North Waziristan, killing at least 10 people, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
Pakistan’s northwest, particularly North Waziristan, is home to numerous militant groups – both local and Al-Qaeda-linked foreign groups – who often work together, sharing fighters, money or expertise.
There was no immediate information on the identities of those killed in the operation but the two intelligence officials who gave information about the strikes said both were in areas dominated by the Haqqani network, and most of those killed are believed to have belonged to the organization.
“We have also been hearing some names coming from our field agents, but we don’t have any confirmation so far,” said one of the officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Haqqani network is believed to carry out operations against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from bases in North Waziristan and is considered one of the more lethal groups operating in Afghanistan. They are also believed to have been the organization holding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American prisoner of war recently released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held by the U.S.
Due to stricter rules on the use of drones, diplomatic sensitivities and the changing nature of the Al-Qaeda threat, the number of American drone strikes had dwindled. The strikes Wednesday and Thursday were the first since Christmas, and even before that, the number of strikes every year had been dropping.
The Pakistani government and military are believed to have supported the drone strikes to a degree in the past but in recent years have become more vocal in their opposition. The strikes are extremely controversial in Pakistan, where many people consider them a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
Meanwhile, a Pakistani court Thursday struck down a government order barring former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who faces treason charges, from leaving the country. The government can still appeal.
The ruling by the Karachi court could pave the way for the man who ruled Pakistan for nearly a decade to leave the country after an embarrassing trial that saw him become the first chief of army staff to face treason charges.
It also puts the Pakistani government, whose decision to push for Musharraf’s trial put it at odds with the powerful military, in a tricky position where it must decide whether it wants to further anger the military by trying to keep Musharraf from leaving the country.
Under the Karachi court ruling, the government has 15 days to appeal the decision, so Musharraf can’t leave Pakistan immediately. The court gave no reason for striking Musharraf’s name from the exit control list, which prevents people from leaving the country, usually in legal cases.
The 70-year-old Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup and then stepped down in 2008. He later left the country, but returned to Pakistan in March 2013, hoping for a political comeback.
Instead, he got embroiled in court cases, including the treason charges, which are connected to his decision in 2007 to declare a state of emergency and detain senior judges, including the chief justice.