ISLAMABAD - U.S. missiles slammed into three compounds close to the Afghan border Friday, killing 18 suspected militants, Pakistani officials said, just a day after the government summoned an American diplomat to protest drone strikes in the country's northwest tribal region.
The drones struck the North Waziristan tribal area, the main militant sanctuary in the country and the target of a planned Pakistani military operation that the U.S. expects in the near future. Hundreds of militants and their family members streamed out of North Waziristan in the past two days in anticipation of the operation, local residents said.
The U.S. has long demanded Pakistan target militants holed up in North Waziristan and has welcomed the planned operation in the area. But Pakistan is likely to focus on Taliban militants who have been at war with the state, not those who have been fighting the U.S.-led coalition in neighboring Afghanistan.
The suspected militant hideouts destroyed by U.S. drones Friday were hit minutes apart and were located several kilometers (miles) from each other in North Waziristan, said intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The U.S. has carried out seven drone strikes in the past week in North Waziristan, ignoring Pakistani protests that they violate the country's sovereignty. The attacks have exacerbated the already troubled relationship between the two countries, but the U.S. has refused to stop the strikes, saying they are vital to combating Taliban and al-Qaida militants who pose a threat to the West.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry summoned a senior U.S. diplomat on Thursday to protest the wave of drone strikes.
On Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Moazzam Ahmad Khan called the attacks "illegal, unproductive." He said they were a "violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and in violation ... of international laws."
The Pakistani government is widely believed to have supported the strikes in the past. That cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated, but U.S. officials say privately that there are still senior members of Pakistan's government and military who condone the attacks. The U.S. rarely discusses the covert CIA-run drone program in Pakistan publicly.
The strikes are unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they kill mostly civilians - an allegation denied by the U.S.
The suspected militant hideouts that were attacked Friday in the Shawal area of North Waziristan were each hit by two missiles, said the intelligence officials. Militants often use the hideouts when they are crossing into Afghanistan, the officials said. In addition to the 18 suspected militants who were killed, 14 others were wounded, they said.
In the earlier strikes in the tribal area, five allies of a powerful warlord, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, whose forces often attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan, died when a U.S. drone struck their hideout last Saturday. And on Sunday, American drones fired a flurry of missiles into North Waziristan, killing 10 suspected militants in two separate strikes. On Tuesday, missiles targeting a vehicle in the area killed five more suspected militants.
One of the reasons the U.S. has increased the number of drone attacks in Pakistan was the government's refusal to launch an offensive in North Waziristan against militants who carry out cross-border attacks against American forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said Pakistan plans to launch an operation in North Waziristan in the near future targeting the Pakistani Taliban, who have waged a bloody insurgency against the Pakistani government for years.
Analysts have said they doubt Pakistan will target militants in North Waziristan responsible for attacks in Afghanistan because they are not seen as much of a threat to the state. Also, Pakistan has historical links with some of the Afghan militants operating in the area, especially the so-called Haqqani network, and many analysts believe Islamabad sees them as key potential allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
Many of the militants who started fleeing North Waziristan in vehicles on Thursday were from Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, said local residents, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety. They also included some Arabs and fighters from Chechnya. Many foreign fighters in North Waziristan are closely allied with the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistani Taliban militants were seen patrolling the area, but did not seem to be fleeing. Some local tribesmen were looking for homes outside of North Waziristan to which they could flee, but did not seem overly concerned about reports of an upcoming military operation.
By Friday, around 1,000 people, including wives and children of the foreign militants, had fled from four villages surrounding Mir Ali, one of the main towns in North Waziristan and a key sanctuary for militants fighting in Pakistan, said local residents. It appeared the militants would either head across the border to Afghanistan or to the neighboring South Waziristan tribal area.
The Pakistani army conducted a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan in 2009, but militants still operate freely in some areas.