As fresh doubts emerged on whether dreaded militant commander Ilyas Kashmiri had been killed in a US drone strike last week in South Waziristan, the tribal region continued to be pounded by pilotless US aircraft – with as many as three strikes being reported on Monday.
At least 18 militants are said to have been killed in the blitz.
First, the Pentagon declared that it has ‘no confirmation’ of most-wanted militant Ilyas Kashmiri’s death in a drone strike on Friday.
“We have no confirmation that he’s dead,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan told reporters during an off-camera daily briefing when asked about news reports coming from Pakistan that Kashmiri, the chief of the dreaded 313 Brigade of the Harkatul Jihad al Islami, which has been blamed for a number of high-profile terror strikes in Pakistan, has been killed.
“The Department of Defence has no confirmation (on the death of Kashmiri),” he noted.
The sentiment was echoed by another official of the Department of Defence while speaking to AFP in Kabul. He requested not to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the matter.
However, ABC News, quoting US intelligence officials, later said that Kashmiri’s death had been confirmed.
Two senior US officials told ABC News Kashmiri was among the dead, but before the attack US intelligence officials did not know whether Kashmiri would be at the target location – only that some members of his group were sleeping outside in an orchard.
The officials would not discuss how they confirmed Kashmiri was among the more than a dozen people who perished in the strike.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik had earlier said on Sunday that he was “98 per cent” sure that Ilyas Kashmiri, was killed in a US drone attack before midnight on Friday in South Waziristan.
This is not the first time that controversy has surrounded the death of the hardened militant. Kashmiri had already been declared dead a few years ago by officials, only to reemerge.
A volley of fresh strikes by CIA-operated pilot-less aircraft took place around Wana, the headquarters of South Waziristan Agency, on Monday.
The first two attacks targeted a suspected militants’ compound and a vehicle in Bermal sub-division.
“First, a US drone fired missiles at a house belonging to a local tribesman, Zari Khan Shamshikhel, in the Shalam Raghzai area, killing five people,” an official source told The Express Tribune. He said all the dead were ‘Punjabi Taliban.’ “Then another pilot-less aircraft targeted another compound in the Wacha Dana area, killing eight militants,” the source said. “The area is some two kilometres away from the site of the first attack.”
The third attack took place eight hours later in the Dray Nishtar area, which lies on the border with North Waziristan at 10:45 am, about 30 kilometres from the site of the other two raids.
“A US drone fired two missiles on a vehicle (believed to be carrying) militants, killing three insurgents,” a senior security official told AFP. He added that the dead were ‘Punjabi Taliban’ from the group of Hafiz Gul Bahadar group, which is based in North Waziristan Agency.
Security officials said that five militants of central Asian origin and eight Punjabi militants were among those killed in the three strikes.
Meanwhile, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an outlawed conglomerate of militant outfits, said they have delivered on threats to avenge the killing of their ideological chief Osama bin Laden – and promised more is to come.
In a video message to Reuters, Omar Khalid Khorasani, TTP commander in Mohmand Agency, said that they struck back to avenge the terror icon’s killing – claiming responsibility for incidents in which militants bombed an American consulate convoy in Peshawar, laid siege to PNS Mehran in Karachi and blew up paramilitary cadets in Pakistan in Shabqadar.
“These attacks were just a part of our revenge. God willing, the world will see how we avenge Osama bin Laden’s martyrdom,” he told Reuters in a video message. “We have networks in several countries outside Pakistan.”
The video starts with him and some associates sitting on the floor of a mud-walled house, eating mango slices and joking. Then he turns serious and speaks about the TTP’s intentions.
“Our war against America is continuing inside and outside of Pakistan. When we launch attacks, it will prove that we can hit American targets outside Pakistan,” said Khorasani.
Sitting with a pistol strapped to his waist and flanked by two of his comrades with AK-47 assault rifles, Khorasani said the death of Bin Laden would not demoralise the Taliban. It had in fact, injected a ‘new courage’ into its fighters, said Khorasani.
“The ideology given to us by Osama bin Laden and the spirit and courage that he gave to us to fight infidels of the world is alive,” said Khorasani. He described Ayman al-Zawahri as the Pakistani Taliban’s ‘chief and supreme leader’.
While the US has been trying to engage the Taliban in dialogue to restore peace in Afghanistan, Khorasani said, “Even if some rapprochement is reached in Afghanistan, our ideology, aim and objective is to change the system in Pakistan.”
With additional input from wires
Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2011.