Suspected US missile kills 12 militants in Pakistan

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The Independent Online

Missiles believed to have been fired from a US drone struck a remote compound linked to Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud today - the day after he threatened to attack Washington and took responsibility for the assault on a police training camp in Pakistan.

Neither Mr Mehsud or one of his senior lieutenants said to use the compound were present, but up to 12 people were killed and several others wounded.

Reports said that up to 30 people, described as suspected militants, were at the compound in Pakistan's Orakzai tribal region close to the Afghan border when the two missiles tore into the property. Soon afterwards, the bodies of the dead and wounded were moved from the location. Liaquat Ali, a local government official, confirmed the attack but was unable to provide further details.

The strike came a day after Mr Mehsud claimed responsibility for the assault on a police cadet training centre on the outskirts of Lahore that left at least eight people dead and more than 100 injured. Three militants were killed while at least one suspected member of the group was captured alive.

In an unusual move, Mr Mehsud, thought to be in his mid-30s, apparently took the decision to personally telephone media organisations and take responsibility, saying the attack had been carried out in response to ongoing US missile strikes. At the same time, he also vowed to respond to a $5m bounty recently placed on his head by the US by launching an attack on Washington. “You can't imagine how we could avenge this threat inside Washington, inside the White House,” he told Reuters.

The FBI said Mr Mehsud had previously made similar threats and that there was no intelligence to suggest an attack was imminent. However, coming so swiftly after the US announced the reward and also unveiled a new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, the direct threat has underlined how the stakes have been raised between Washington and this leader of the Pakistan Taliban.

“Whether he has the capacity to do this really is the million dollar question,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based security analyst. “He is all about spreading terror and given what is happening in south Asia he knows that whatever he says will be taken much more seriously. My instinct is that he would not have the capacity to do something in the heart of Washington but that is not the issue. The fact that people there are getting worried by his statements means his job is done.”

Three years ago Mr Mehsud, who comes from a family of truck drivers in South Waziristan and whose face is believed to have never been captured on film, was named the “emir” of the Movement of Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group of militant organisations believed to be responsible for a wave of attacks, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

His organisation has never been held responsible for attacks outside of Pakistan and as such, he was less of a priority for the US, whose efforts concentrated on targets believed to be carrying cross-border attacks against Western troops inside Afghanistan. However, since the Obama administration took office, the US has begun to dispatch missiles at targets associated with Mr Mehsud and his allies.

The switch in tactics appears to have coincided with a decision by Mr Mehsud to join forces with two former rival Taliban leaders, Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Putting aside their differences, the three militant leaders came together to create the so-called Union of the Consultative Council of Mujahideen. The move followed a call by Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, urging militants in Pakistan to work together to “liberate Afghanistan from the occupation forces”.

If Mr Mehsud's group was responsible for Monday's assault it suggests an increasing nexus between militants in Pakistan's tribal areas and those in the heartland province of Punjab. Several cadets who survived the assault reported hearing the attackers speaking with southern Punjabi accents.

A report in Pakistan's The News said the attack had been planned by another close ally and tribal associate of Mr Mehsud, Hussain Mehsud, who has been named as the leader's successor should he be killed. The paper named one of the suspected militants captured, said by officials to be an Afghan national, Hijratullah, also known as Nadeem Asghar.

Whether some cross-fertilisation between militant groups and the forming of a new alliance would give Mr Mehsud the ability to launch an attack on the US capital is far from clear, even though some reports suggest he already has links with al-Qa'ida fighters.

Bahukutumbi Raman, a former national security advisor to the Indian government, said that by itself the Pakistan Taliban was unlikely to have the resources to strike outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. However he said Mr Mehsud was believed to have developed links with other militant groups that may even have a presence within the US. He said: “You have to take seriously the threat of an attack through one of these other groups.”