MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani villagers collected the corpses and body parts on Saturday of at least 20 people, including several suspected Arab militants as well as three children, killed by a U.S. missile strike overnight.
A pilotless drone aircraft launched the attack late on Friday, targeting a tribesman’s house in Mohammad Khel, a village, 30 km (20 miles) west of Miranshah in North Waziristan, a known sanctuary of al Qaeda and Taliban militants close to the Afghan border.
Villagers combed the wreckage at daybreak, looking for survivors and bodies to be buried.
“We found body parts scattered all over the place in the ruins, someone’s hand, someone’s leg,” Bakht Ali, one of the villagers, told Reuters.
An intelligence official based in the region said a woman and three children were among those killed.
“We now have a figure of 20 dead. That includes eight residents of the house, five other locals and seven foreigners,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The foreigners appeared to be Arabs, although their nationalities were unknown, he said.
There were no indications that any of those killed were regarded by U.S. counterterrorism agencies as top tier al Qaeda targets, sources said.
The News newspaper reported that the strike was carried out based on information that the foreigners had been invited to a feast by pro-Taliban tribesmen following the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
An army spokesman said there had been an explosion in the area, but was unable to confirm the cause.
SHOOTING AT DRONE
Faced with an intensifying Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, U.S. forces in the past month have carried out eight missile strikes by pilotless drones and a commando raid on the Pakistani side of the border.
Tribesmen in Mir Ali, a town 25 km east of Miranshah, fired at a U.S. drone on Saturday before it turned away. A U.S. missile attack on Mir Ali killed five people, including foreign militants, on Wednesday.
The airstrikes, and the first-ever use of ground troops, have strained relations between the allies.
The Pakistani government has protested that the attacks violated territorial sovereignty and undermined its own long-term efforts to crush militancy in a country where anti-American sentiment runs high.
American al Qaeda militant Adam Gadahn blasted Pakistan’s leaders as U.S. puppets in the war against militants, saying in a video posted on Islamist websites: “The Pakistan Army … and the professional spreaders of lies at their service are trying to make us believe that the state of Pakistan has turned a new leaf (after former President Pervez Musharraf left power).”
“These are not the leaders Pakistan wants and deserves. They are the leaders America wants and preserves in order to reach its policy objectives, hinder the jihad against the Crusaders in Afghanistan … and ensure that nuclear-capable Pakistan remains docile, contained and sharia-free,” Gadahn said.
The Pakistan army is currently fighting fierce battles against militants in Bajaur, at the north east extreme of the tribal belt, and Swat, an alpine valley in a more settled region close to the tribal lands.
In some places, ethnic Pashtun tribesmen have banded together with encouragement from the authorities to oppose the militants, whom the tribes blame for bringing violence to their region.
A traditional meeting or “jirga” of tribal elders in Mamound, a militant stronghold in Bajaur, decided on Saturday to form a “lashkar” or a tribal force to initiate action against militants in their area, a resident said.
More than 1,000 militants have been killed in the fighting with security forces in Bajaur and Swat since August.
Yet, Pakistani assertions that it is doing its utmost to contain militants have done little to appease U.S. concerns.
Earlier on Friday, Pakistani intelligence officials reported another U.S. airstrike on the North Waziristan village of Datta Khel, but a military spokesman said it was on the Afghan side of the border and no intrusion took place into Pakistani territory.
U.S. commanders have spoken of respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty but have suggested they will not stop cross-border strikes on militants.