PARACHINAR, Pakistan - A suspected U.S. drone carried out a rare missile strike in northwest Pakistan outside the country's remote tribal region on Thursday, killing six people, including at least two Afghan militants, Pakistani police and security officials said.
The missiles hit an Islamic seminary in Hangu district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that was known to be visited by senior members of the Afghan Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban and one of the most feared militant groups battling U.S troops in neighboring Afghanistan, the officials said. The two Afghan militants killed in the strike were from the Haqqani network.
It was only the second drone attack to occur outside Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border since the strikes began in the country in 2004 and could increase tension between Islamabad and Washington. There was a strike in Khyber Pakhtunkwa's Bannu district in 2008. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is considered a "settled area" of Pakistan, meaning it is generally more populated and developed than the tribal region.
"Now no place is safe. The drones are now firing missiles outside the tribal areas," said Shaukat Yousufzai, health minister for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, which has spoken out strongly against drone attacks.
"It is Hangu today. Tomorrow it can be Karachi, Lahore or any other place," Yousufzai told Pakistan's Dunya TV.Pakistan's Foreign Ministry also protested the strike in a statement sent to reporters, saying the attacks violate the country's sovereignty.
Thursday's strike was the first drone attack since the U.S. killed former Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud on Nov. 1 in a strike in the North Waziristan tribal area. Pakistani officials were outraged by the attack because they said it came a day before they planned to invite Mehsud to hold peace talks.
Police have arrived at the scene of the seminary, which was struck by three missiles in the Tall area of Hangu, said local police officer Fareedullah, who goes by only one name. The six killed were badly burned, he said.
Another police officer, Zia Khan, said five Afghans were killed in the attack, including three students and two teachers.
Hangu police chief Iftikhar Ahmad said two of the dead, Mufti Hameedullah and Mufti Ahmad Jan, were members of the Haqqani network. An Afghan intelligence official also confirmed Jan was killed in the attack. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.
The covert CIA drone program in Pakistan has been a constant source of tension between Islamabad and Washington. Pakistani officials regularly denounce the strikes in public as a violation of the country's sovereignty. But the government is known to have supported at least some of the attacks in the past. It is generally understood that Pakistan's secret agreement with the U.S. on drone strikes in the past was confined to the tribal region and did not include the country's so-called "settled areas."
The Pakistani government has stepped up its vocal opposition to drone attacks since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office in June. Sharif met with President Barack Obama in Washington in October and pressed him to end the strikes. But the U.S. has shown no sign that it intends to stop using what it considers a vital tool to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Imran Khan, the former cricket star who now leads the party that runs the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, has called for Pakistan to block trucks carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan in response to continued drone strikes. The federal government has shown little interest in doing so, but Khan plans to hold a strike on Nov. 23 and block the road through the province that some of the trucks take.
Obama ramped up the use of drone strikes after he took office in 2009, and they reached a peak in 2010, when there were more than 100 attacks. The number has dropped off since then, and there have only been a little more than two dozen so far this year.
Most of the drone strikes have occurred in North Waziristan, the headquarters of the Haqqani network in Pakistan. The U.S. has repeatedly urged Pakistan to conduct an operation in North Waziristan, but the government has refused, saying its troops are stretched too thin battling domestic militants. Many analysts believe, however, that Pakistan doesn't want to cross the Haqqani network, a group with which it has historical ties and could be an ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
Also Thursday, a bomb rigged to a bicycle exploded near a group of soldiers and police patrolling in a vehicle in Quetta, the capital of southwest Baluchistan province, killing two policemen and a civilian, said Quetta police chief Abdur Rauf.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Baluchistan is home to both Islamic militants and separatists who have been waging a low-level insurgency against the government for decades.
Later Thursday, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a customs office at the Torkham border crossing with Afghanistan in the Khyber tribal area, wounding 26 people, many of them critically, said local government administrator Daftar Khan. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Dawar reported from Peshawar. Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.