U.S. drone hits kill 25, Pakistani officials say

ISLAMABAD - U.S. drones fired a volley of missiles into a militant-held region in Pakistan close to the Afghan border on Friday, killing 25 people, Pakistani intelligence officials said. The strike came a day after Pakistan's army chief denounced such attacks, and could further sour deteriorating relations between Washington and Islamabad.

Ten missiles hit a house in Spinwam village in North Waziristan, a region home to Taliban militants targeting American and NATO troops just across the border in Afghanistan, as well as international al Qaeda terrorists, three intelligence officials said.

Three children and two women were believed to be among the dead, they said. There was no way to immediately independently confirm that.

America has been regularly firing missiles into the border region for 2-1/2 years now, but does not formally acknowledge the CIA-run program. U.S. officials rarely comment on specific strikes but have said in general terms that they accurately hit militants.

U.S. silence means the usual sources of information about the strikes are Pakistani intelligence officials, who speak on condition of anonymity. Their accounts are impossible to verify independently because access to the border area is forbidden.

The attacks have long been a source of tension between the two allies, at least on the surface.

The missiles are the only way Washington can directly hit Afghan Taliban factions hiding in Pakistan, something it says is essential to success in Afghanistan. That dilemma has become more acute given that the U.S. wants to begin withdrawing troops in the summer.

Pakistan's army and political leadership has always publicly condemned the missile attacks, but is believed to have sanctioned them privately. That policy allows them to be insulated from some of the anti-American sentiment that runs strong in the country.

But ties have sunk to new lows this year after an American CIA contractor in January shot and killed two Pakistanis he said were trying to rob him. A March missile strike that allegedly killed dozens of innocent tribesmen also angered Pakistani leaders.

Pakistani officials say they now want America to limit the use of the strikes and give them more information about them. But several U.S. officials in Islamabad and Washington have said they will continue regardless of Pakistani objections, which some analysts have suggested were aimed at domestic political consumption or extracting more concessions from Washington.

The CIA honors an agreement to target within the geographic "boxes" of territory previously agreed to with Pakistan, but does not give the Pakistanis any notice of the strikes, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic decisions.

Persistent tensions over Pakistan's alleged ties to Afghan Taliban factions have also had an airing.

During a visit here Wednesday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, accused Pakistan's military-run spy service of maintaining links with the Haqqani network, a major Afghan Taliban faction based in North Waziristan.

Islamabad denies supporting the group, but many analysts and U.S. officials suspect Islamabad may be trying to maintain its links to the Haqqanis so that it can use them as a means of retaining influence in Afghanistan — and keeping a bulwark against archrival India — after the Americans leave.

While officials from both nations have raised the level of rhetoric, they also say they want to keep the partnership intact. Washington needs Pakistani support to succeed in Afghanistan, while Islamabad relies heavily on U.S civilian and military aid.

Meanwhile Friday, hundreds of militants attacked a checkpoint in a northwest Pakistani district along the border overnight and into the morning hours, killing 14 security troops, officials said — a show of insurgents' continued strength despite army offensives against them.

The fighting took place in Lower Dir, where Pakistan's army has staged operations in recent years.

Officials from the police, government and intelligence agencies said some fighting was still going on Friday morning. They did not know how many militants died in the clashes in Lower Dir's Khankai area. State-run Pakistan, TV said security forces had launched a search operation to track down the lead attackers.

Army officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.