Missiles from U.S. drones slammed into militant hideouts overnight in northwestern Pakistan, killing 13 suspected insurgents and marking the resumption of the CIA-led program after a nearly six-month break, officials said Thursday.
The strikes were swiftly condemned by the Pakistani government, with the Foreign Ministry saying in a statement that they were a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and its territorial integrity.
The strikes came just days after a five-hour siege of Pakistan's busiest airport ended with 36 people, including ten militants, killed. The audacious attack raised concerns about whether Pakistan was capable of dealing with the Pakistani Taliban, which said it carried out the assault along with an Uzbek militant group.
It was not immediately clear if the drone strikes were connected to the airport attack. Pakistan routinely condemns drone strikes even when they target armed groups at war with the government.
The Pakistani government had asked the U.S. to refrain from drone strikes while it was trying to negotiate a peace deal with the militants, but even before the airport siege those talks had largely collapsed.
Now the focus has shifted to whether Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will authorize a large-scale military offensive against the North Waziristan tribal areas where the militants are headquartered.
In the first strike, which came late Wednesday, a suspected American drone fired two missiles at a militant hideout in North Waziristan near the Afghan border, killing three militants.
Then, early Thursday, another suspected U.S. missile strike targeted a separate militant compound in North Waziristan, killing at least 10 people, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
Pakistan's northwest, particularly North Waziristan, is home to numerous militant groups — both local and al-Qaida-linked foreign groups — who often work together, sharing fighters, money or expertise.
There was no immediate information on the identities of those killed in the operation but the two intelligence officials who gave information about the strikes said both were in areas dominated by the Haqqani network, and most of those killed are believed to have belonged to the organization.
Due to stricter rules on the use of drones, diplomatic sensitivities and the changing nature of the al-Qaida threat, the number of American drone strikes had dwindled. The strikes Wednesday and Thursday were the first since Christmas, and even before that, the number of strikes every year had been steadily dropping.
The Pakistani government and military are believed to have supported the drone strikes to a degree in the past but in recent years have become more vocal in their opposition. The strikes are extremely controversial in Pakistan, where many people consider them a violation of the country's sovereignty.