Drone Strikes Kill Dozens Of Militants In Pakistan In Pakistan, airstrikes believed to be carried out by U.S. predator drones have killed dozens of militants. That would make the attack the deadliest since the U.S. deployed its remotely guided missiles to target the Taliban leadership dug into Pakistan's mountainous border with Afghanistan.

Drone Strikes Kill Dozens Of Militants In Pakistan

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene. We're going to hear now how the U.S. military is tracking enemies in two very different parts of the world. In a moment we'll hear from the general who's leading a new command in Africa. First we go to Pakistan, where the U.S. has struck again at militants near the border with Afghanistan. The American airstrikes yesterday killed at least 45 militants. That's the highest reported death toll since the U.S. began deploying those missiles in the region. From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy has more.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The details of the assault on the remote tribal area of South Waziristan known as Pakistan's badlands are still emerging. But local media reports that dozens of militants were killed when three drone missiles were fired on Taliban fighters as they gathered for a funeral of fellow militants. Those fighters had been killed earlier in a separate drone attack.

The bloody day represents the first drone strikes on the hometown base of Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's public enemy number one. The Pakistan Taliban leader whom the U.S. blames for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has unleashed terror attacks here that have claimed the lives of many civilians. And Mehsud's training camp in South Waziristan is reported to produce suicide vests and the recruits to wear them. He is said to have some 1,500 battle-hardened fighters.

Retired Brigadier Mahmood Shah says the head of the Mehsud tribe has consolidated power in the lawless tribal area with cunning, avoiding battle when he is weak, fighting only when he is strong.

Brigadier MAHMOOD SHAH (Pakistani Army, Retired): He's a very clever chap. You also must keep in mind that Baitullah Mehsud is no longer a Mehsud. Actually, Mehsud is representing al-Qaida. And you have some elements of al-Qaida also behind him.

MCCARTHY: A rival who dared set up a competing faction against Baitullah Mehsud was murdered yesterday. Zainuddin Masood(ph) was gunned down by his bodyguard following dawn prayers. The younger challenger was urging men to defect from Mehsud, whom he condemned for killing civilians. Zainuddin's killing is seen as part of the enmity that governs the tribal areas.

But defense analyst Halid Aziz(ph) says the animosities among the Mehsud clan are intensifying to the benefit of the government.

Mr. HALID AZIZ (Defense Analyst): It's good for the government because it divides the Mehsuds. Now they'll have a rivalry amongst themselves.

MCCARTHY: Others say the assassination of Zainuddin represents a setback for Islamabad. It adds to Baitullah's reputation for ruthlessness. He's accused of the murder. And author Ahmed Rashid(ph) says it will likely discourage opponents of Mehsud from publicly opposing him and siding with the government in South Waziristan.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Author): The key to this is that you have to protect these people. And if you can't give them protection, they're not going to come to your side and they're certainly not going to fight for you.

MCCARTHY: As Baitullah Mehsud hunts his rivals, the Pakistan army hunts him. Security forces are squeezing his stronghold, cutting off the main routes leading to his bases and pounding them from the air. The military has promised a major offensive against what it calls the epicenter of militancy in South Waziristan. But army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas says the full-scale assault is not yet underway.

Major General ATHAR ABBAS (Pakistani Army): Having said that, the pre-positioning of the forces has been done. We are in the preliminary phases of the operation. It's part of the (unintelligible) maneuver.

MCCARTHY: As the army's two-month-old offensive against the Taliban in nearby Swat Valley winds down, operations in South Waziristan are expected to step up. They will be closely watched in Washington. The United States would like the area flushed of Taliban as possible in advance of the a deployment of American troops just over the border in Afghanistan later this year.

Halid Aziz believes the Pakistan army and the U.S. are working in concert along the border. But he says Pakistan is also hitting Waziristan now because of fresh intelligence.

Mr. AZIZ: That something else is cooking up. Something big.

MCCARTHY: He says the Pakistani army is moving to preempt whatever Baitullah Mehsud may be planning.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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