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Monday 16 February 2009 12.02 GMT

Saeed Shah in Islamabad

US missile strike kills 30 in Pakistan

A US missile strike against suspected militants in a tribal area of Pakistan killed 30 people today, as Islamabad announced a peace deal with extremists in another region that includes the imposition of Islamic law.

The missile attack targeted a house used by a Taliban commander in Kurram, close to the Afghan border. It is the fourth such strike since Barack Obama entered the White House, showing that his administration intends to continue the policy of firing missiles into Pakistani territory despite loud opposition in Pakistan.

The attacks, which have increased in frequency since September, have concentrated on Waziristan, the southern tip of the tribal borderland, which is a stronghold for Taliban and al-Qaida. There have been no known previous hits in Kurram and the decision to go after militants there is a sign of how deeply entrenched they are across the tribal region. Unlike most of the tribal region, in Kurram the principal cause of unrest is a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni clans.

Rehman Ullah, a resident of the targeted village of Baggan, said drones were seen in the sky before the attack and that he saw 30 bodies dug out of the rubble afterwards. It was unclear whether the dead were Pakistani or Afghan Taliban fighters..

A missile strike on Saturday reportedly killed 25 people, including five foreign trainers who were likely members of al-Qaida, in the Ladha district of South Waziristan. There were rumours that the al-Qaida deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been in Ladha just days before.

The Pakistani prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, today reiterated Islamabad’s concerns about the missiles, which are fired from pilotless drone aircraft operated by the CIA. “These (strikes) are counterproductive and not in the interests of the country,” he said. “I think the Obama administration will have to reconsider this policy.”

The missile attacks in the tribal area have caused civilian casualties and fanned support for extremism, but they appear to have been highly effective in eliminating senior and mid-level al-Qaida operatives, possibly to the point where the group may have to find a safer base elsewhere.

Separately, Pakistan announced it had agreed a deal that would see sharia – Islamic law – introduced to a large area of the north-west, Malakand, which sits outside the tribal territory but is under assault from Taliban extremists. The authorities hope that the provision of Islamic courts in Malakand – the key demand of the militants – will lead them to lay down their arms and remove public support for their populist demand of speedy Islamic justice.

In return, the army will pull out of active operations in the area. However, analysts believe that the militants who are particularly entrenched in Swat valley, a part of Malakand, will use army disengagement as an opportunity to regroup and rearm.

Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister of North West Frontier province, in which Malakand falls, said he believed peace would follow the sharia move. He said the new regulations would still protect the fundamental rights enshrined in the Pakistani constitution, with the main purpose being to speed up the legal process.

“If you compare these courts to the courts established by the Taliban in Afghanistan, there’s nothing in common between them,” Hoti said.

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