Suspected U.S. missiles targeted a vehicle Saturday in northwestern Pakistan, killing four alleged militants, intelligence officials said. It was the 17th such attack this month — the most intense barrage since the airstrikes began in 2004.
Shortly before the attack, the vehicle left a militant hide-out in Datta Khel, a town in the North Waziristan tribal area that is controlled by insurgents focused on attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan, the two intelligence officials said.
It is not clear exactly why the attacks have spiked, but most of this month’s strikes have targeted forces led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a commander who was once supported by Pakistan and the U.S. during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Haqqani has since turned against the U.S., and American military officials have said his network — now effectively led by his son, Sirajuddin — presents one of the greatest threats to foreign forces in Afghanistan. Another militant commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and his forces also hold sway in North Waziristan.
The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record to the media.
Washington wants Islamabad to launch an army offensive against insurgents in North Waziristan. Analysts believe Pakistan is resisting because it wants to maintain its historic relationship with the groups, which could be an ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw. Without a Pakistani offensive, the U.S. has had to rely on CIA-operated drone strikes to target the Haqqani network, which also has bases in eastern Afghanistan.
The 17 missile strikes this month have killed nearly 85 people since Sept. 2, according to an Associated Press tally based on Pakistani intelligence reports. Most have struck in and around Datta Khel, which has a population of about 40,000 people and is on a strategically vital road to the Afghan border.
U.S. officials do not publicly acknowledge the missile strikes but have said privately they have killed several senior Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the region that is largely out of the control of the Pakistani state.
Pakistan often criticizes the attacks as violations of the country’s sovereignty, but the government is widely believed to help the U.S. carry out the strikes. Criticism of the strikes has been more muted in recent months.
The latest strike occurred some hours after gunmen killed two worshippers in a central Pakistani city.
Police official Babar Bakhat Qureshi said seven others were wounded in the Sunni Muslim mosque in the city of Bahawalpur, a stronghold of a Pakistani militant group. The motive was not immediately clear, he added.
Pakistan has a history of sectarian violence often involving Sunni extremists targeting minority Shiite Muslims. But attacks on Sunni mosques also occur.