Peshawar: US missiles killed 18 militants in Pakistan`s tribal district of South Waziristan on Monday, destroying compounds and a vehicle in the deadliest drone strikes for months, officials said.
Three strikes were reported just days after Pakistani officials said they believed senior al Qaeda commander Ilyas Kashmiri had died in a similar attack late Friday, also in South Waziristan which borders Afghanistan.
Washington has called Pakistan`s semi-autonomous northwest tribal region the most dangerous place on Earth and the global headquarters of al Qaeda. Taliban and other al Qaeda-linked networks have carved out strongholds there.
The first strike killed seven militants in the early hours in Shalam Raghzai, 10 kilometres (six miles) northwest of Wana, the district`s main town.
A second slammed two missiles into a compound in Wacha Dana, 12 kilometres northwest of Wana, killing eight militants, Pakistani officials said.
The third struck the Bray Nishtar area, which lies on the border with North Waziristan at 10:45 am (0545 GMT), about 30 kilometres from the site of the other two raids and about eight hours later.
"A US drone fired two missiles on a militant vehicle killing three rebels," a senior Pakistani security official said of the third attack.
Another official warned the death toll could rise further. The combined toll of 18 made Monday`s drone strikes the deadliest reported in Pakistan since a salvo of US missiles killed at least 35 people on March 17.
Initial reports suggested that some foreign militants may have been killed and that Pakistani Taliban were also targeted on Monday.
One of the demolished compounds was near a madrassa and just south of the Ghwakhwa area, where Kashmiri, one of al Qaeda`s most feared operational leaders, was reportedly killed days earlier.
Kashmiri has a US bounty of USD 5 million on his head. Pakistani officials said he was the target of a Friday drone strike in which nine members of his outlawed Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islam (HuJI) group died.
The 47-year-old has been blamed for high-profile attacks on Western targets, accused over the November 2008 attacks on India`s financial capital Mumbai and for masterminding devastating attacks on Pakistan`s military.
Although the United States does not confirm Predator drone attacks, its military and the CIA operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy the armed, unmanned aircraft in the region.
Monday`s attacks bring to 12 the number of strikes reported in Pakistan`s tribal areas since US commandos killed al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a raid in the garrison city of Abbottabad on May 02.
Pakistan`s Parliament has called for an end to the US missile attacks and demanded no repeat of the operation that killed bin Laden, despite President Barack Obama saying he reserves the right to act again.
Pakistan is on the frontline of the US-led war on the Taliban and al Qaeda, and bomb attacks across the country have killed more than 4,400 people in the last four years -- blamed on militants opposed to the government`s US alliance.
On Sunday, at least 24 people were killed in two separate bombings in the northwest -- the first at a bus terminal near the city of Peshawar killing six people and the second killing 18 at a bakery in the garrison town of Nowshera.
The bin Laden raid profoundly jolted Pakistan`s security establishment, with its intelligence services and military widely accused of incompetence or complicity over the presence of bin Laden close to a military academy.
The drone strikes are hugely unpopular among the general public, who are deeply opposed to the government`s alliance with Washington, and inflame anti-US feeling, which has surged further after the bin Laden raid.
But US officials say the missile strikes have severely weakened al Qaeda`s leadership and killed high-value targets including the former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
Most of the attacks have been concentrated in North Waziristan, the most notorious Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda bastion in Pakistan, where the United States wants Pakistan to launch a ground offensive as soon as possible.