Feb 14, 12:20 PM (ET)
By STEPHEN GRAHAM
ISLAMABAD (AP) - Dozens of followers of Pakistan's top Taliban commander were in a compound when a suspected U.S. missile attack hit Saturday, killing 27 militants in an al-Qaida stronghold near the Afghan border, officials said.
The strike appeared to be the deadliest yet by the American drone aircraft that prowl the frontier, and defied Pakistani warnings that the tactic is fueling extremism in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation.
In an interview unrelated to the attack, President Asif Ali Zardari said the Taliban had expanded their presence to a "huge amount" of Pakistan and were even eyeing a takeover of the state.
"We're fighting for the survival of Pakistan. We're not fighting for the survival of anybody else," Zardari said, according to a transcript of his remarks that CBS television said it would air Sunday.
Many Pakistanis believe the country is fighting Islamist militants, who have enjoyed state support in the past, only at Washington's behest.
Remotely piloted U.S. aircraft are believed to have launched more than 30 attacks over the past year, and American officials say al-Qaida's leadership and ability to support the insurgency in Afghanistan has been significantly weakened. But Pakistani officials say the vast majority of the victims are civilians.
After Saturday's strike, Taliban fighters surrounded the flattened compound in the village of Shrawangai Nazarkhel and carried away the dead and wounded in several vehicles. The village is in South Waziristan, part of the tribally governed area along the Afghan frontier considered the likely redoubt of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
The victims included about 15 ethnic Uzbek militants and several Afghans, said Pakistani intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The seniority of the militants was unclear.
Two of the officials said dozens of followers of Pakistan's top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, were staying in the housing compound when it was hit. There was no indication that Mehsud was present.
Pakistan's former government and the CIA have named Mehsud as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Pakistani officials accuse him of harboring foreign fighters, including Central Asians linked to al-Qaida, and of training suicide bombers.
The accounts of Saturday's strike could not be verified independently. The tribally governed region is unsafe for reporters. The U.S. Embassy had no comment, while Pakistan's army spokesman was unavailable.
The new U.S. administration has brushed off Pakistani criticism that the missile strikes fuel extremist and anti-American sentiment and undercuts the government's own counterinsurgency strategy.
"The government is doing everything possible to stop it and I hope that America listens to the voice of the people of Pakistan," Pakistan's Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said Saturday.
Yet many analysts suspect Pakistan has quietly agreed to the attacks in order not to endanger billions of dollars in American and Western support for its powerful military and its ailing economy.
The pro-Western government in Islamabad, led by Bhutto widower Zardari, has signed peace deals with tribal leaders in the northwest while launching a series of military operations against hard-liners.
However, government forces are bogged down on several fronts in the northwest, and Taliban militants have sustained a campaign that has included a string of abductions and other attacks on foreigners.
On Friday, the kidnappers of an American employee of the United Nations threatened to kill him within 72 hours and issued a grainy 20-second video of the blindfolded John Solecki saying he was "sick and in trouble."
Gunmen seized Solecki on Feb. 2 after shooting his driver to death as they drove to work in Quetta, a southwestern city near the Afghan border.
The kidnappers identified themselves as the previously unknown Baluchistan Liberation United Front, indicating a link to local separatists rather than to Islamist militants.
Fears for Solecki's safety are intense after Taliban militants apparently beheaded an abducted Polish geologist in early February. A U.N. statement said it was aware of the kidnappers' demand for the release of 141 women allegedly held in Pakistan and was seeking "urgent contact to discuss ways of securing his safe release."
Malik said the international community should know that the demands were "highly unrealistic."
"I have shared that list of 141 women with authorities and all intelligence agencies. It does not have any reality," he told reporters in Quetta.
Malik said authorities trying to free Solecki were following strong leads and he was hopeful they would succeed.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.