Miranshah (Pakistan): A US drone attack on Sunday killed 20 militants in an area of Pakistan`s northwest tribal belt where local Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud reportedly escaped death days ago, officials said.
The attack took place in Shaktoi area, 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of Miranshah, the main town in the rugged tribal region of North Waziristan -- the same spot where US missiles pounded an extremist hideout on Thursday.
That raid triggered rumours that Mehsud had been killed or injured, but the chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released an audio message late Saturday denying rumours of his demise and vowing revenge for the US strikes.
Security officials said US drones appear to be tracking Mehsud amid a surge in the strikes by unmanned spy planes. Sunday`s deadly bombing was the tenth US drone strike to hit Pakistan`s tribal belt this month alone.
"The target was a militant compound," said a security official in the area. "Twenty militant deaths have been confirmed."
An intelligence official said that drone aircraft fired at least three missiles, while militants had ringed the demolished compound in the remote and mountainous area and were digging out the bodies.
"The drones are apparently tracking and targeting Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, whose presence is frequently reported in the area," he said.
Another security official, who also asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the US strikes, said it was too early to tell if any high-value militant targets were among the 20 killed on Sunday.
Mehsud released a new audio recording on Saturday to dispel rumours of his death Thursday, which the military had said they were investigating. The TTP said Mehsud left the site of the attack less than an hour beforehand.
"On the 16th of January, I am saying it again -- I am alive, I am OK, I am not injured... when the drone strike took place, I was not present in the area at that time," Mehsud said.
"If the drone attacks continue, the TTP will not be responsible for any dangerous steps in future -- the government of Pakistan will be responsible."
Hakimullah Mehsud assumed leadership of the TTP blamed for the deaths of thousands of people in attacks across Pakistan after his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike in August last year.
Since he took the reins of the TTP, militant attacks against civilian and security targets have surged. On January 1, more than 100 people were killed in a suicide blast at a volleyball game in a northwest town.
Then on January 9, Hakimullah Mehsud appeared in video clip alongside a Jordanian who blew himself up on a US military base in Afghanistan last month, killing seven CIA agents and his Jordanian handler.
The Jordanian claimed the attack was to avenge the death of Baitullah Mehsud, and sources close to intelligence services say US efforts to track down Hakimullah Mehsud had been stepped up since the CIA bombing.
A volley of drone strikes have rained down on the northwest this month, all hitting North Waziristan, a bastion of Al-Qaeda fighters, the Taliban and the Haqqani network which launches attacks on US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
More than 700 people have been killed in about 80 US drone strikes in Pakistan since August 2008.
Washington is also pressing Islamabad to tackle militants who use its soil to launch attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan, as US President Barack Obama puts Pakistan at the heart of its fight against Al-Qaeda and other militants.
Pakistan`s armed forces, meanwhile, last year carried out multiple assaults on TTP strongholds across the tribal belt.
Unrest continues, however, and on Sunday gunmen shot dead an anti-Taliban elder in the tribal Bajaur district, officials said.
Malik Abdul Qayyum, who had received threats from the Taliban, was sprayed with bullets when he left his home on the outskirts of the region`s main town, local administration official Fazal Rabbi told a news agency.