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Suspected US missile kills 18 in Pakistan
Updated: 2009-01-24 08:00

ISLAMABAD – Suspected US missiles killed 18 people on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border Friday, security officials said, the first attacks on the al-Qaida stronghold since US President Barack Obama took office.

Pakistani tribesmen shout slogans against the military operations in tribal areas and drone attacks during a demonstration near the federal parliament in Islamabad, Pakistan, January 23, 2009. [Agencies]

At least five foreign militants were among those killed in the strikes by unmanned aircraft in two parts of the frontier region, an intelligence official said without naming them. There was no information on the identities of the others.

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Pakistan's leaders had expressed hope Obama might halt the strikes, but few observers expected he would end a tactic that US officials say has killed several top al-Qaida operatives and is denying the terrorist network a long-held safe haven.

The United States has staged more than 30 missile strikes inside Pakistan since August last year -- a barrage seen as a sign of frustration in Washington over Islamabad's efforts to curb militants that the US blames for violence in Afghanistan and fears could be planning attacks on the West.

Pakistan publicly protests the strikes in the northwest as violations of its sovereignty that often kill civilians and undermine its own campaign against terrorists that have also launched bloody attacks on domestic targets.

The first attack Friday took place in the village of Zharki in North Waziristan, when a single drone fired three missiles in the space of 10 minutes, the security officials said.

The missiles destroyed two buildings, killing 10 people, at least five of whom were foreign militants, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Hours later, a second missile struck a house in South Waziristan, killing eight people, the officials said, giving no more details.

US President Barack Obama listens as Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, speaks at the State Department in Washington January 22, 2009. [Agencies]

The United States does not acknowledges firing the missiles, which are believed to be mostly fired from drones operated by the CIA and launched from neighboring Afghanistan.

At least 263 people, most of them alleged militants, have been killed in the strikes since last August.

A US strike on New Years Eve killed two Kenyans said to be among al-Qaida's top operatives on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list, an American official said recently.

Gen. David Petraeus, who is in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said late last year that at least three top extremist leaders were killed in recent months due to the missile strikes.

Pakistan's government has little control over the border region, which is considered a likely hiding place for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and other terror leaders.

Obama is making the war in Afghanistan and the intertwined al-Qaida fight in Pakistan his top foreign policy priority. He has not commented on the missile strike policy, but struck a hawkish tone during his election campaign.

On Thursday, he named former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke a special envoy to both countries, an appointment welcomed by Pakistan's government.

In a statement, the country's foreign office said it "looked forward to enhanced and fruitful engagement with the special envoy to further the cause of peace and stability of the region."

Earlier Friday, a suicide attack and a roadside bomb killed two soldiers and three civilians in the Swat Valley, a one-time tourist destination close to the border region, officials said.

Pakistan has launched military offensives in parts of the northwest, but insurgents are making inroads in Swat, blowing up schools, killing police and soldiers and calling for the imposition of a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law.

Militancy in Swat is seen as especially dangerous for Pakistan because the valley lies away from the areas where al-Qaida and the Taliban have traditionally operated.

An indication of the difficulties facing the government, more than 1,000 hard-liners demonstrated in the capital, saying there would only be peace in Swat and other frontier regions if the government severs its ties with the United States.

"The lawlessness cannot end until the end of the pro-America policy," one speaker told the crowd gathered close to the Parliament building in Islamabad.