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November 21, 2013

Rare U.S. drone strike kills 6 in Pakistan

PARACHINAR, Pakistan — A suspected U.S. drone carried out a rare missile strike in northwest Pakistan outside the country's remote tribal region Thursday, killing six people, including at least two Afghan militants, Pakistani police and security officials said.

The missiles hit an Islamic seminary in Hangu district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that was known to be visited by senior members of the Afghan Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban and one of the most feared militant groups battling U.S troops in neighboring Afghanistan, the officials said. The two Afghan militants killed in the strike were from the Haqqani network.

It was one of the first drone attacks to occur outside Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border since the strikes began in the country in 2004 and could increase tension between Islamabad and Washington. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is considered a "settled area" of Pakistan, meaning it is generally more populated and developed than the tribal region.

It was also the first drone attack since the U.S. killed former Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud on Nov. 1 in a strike in the North Waziristan tribal area. Pakistani officials were outraged by the attack because they said it came a day before they planned to invite Mehsud to hold peace talks.

Police have arrived at the scene of the seminary which was struck by three missiles Thursday in the Tall area of Hangu, said local police officer Fareedullah, who goes by only one name. The six were badly burned, he said.

Another police officer, Zia Khan, said five Afghans were killed in the attack, including three students and two teachers.

Hangu police chief Iftikhar Ahmad said two of the dead, Mufti Hameedullah and Mufti Ahmad Jan, were members of the Haqqani network.

The covert CIA drone program in Pakistan has been a constant source of tension between Islamabad and Washington. Pakistani officials regularly denounce the strikes in public as a violation of the country's sovereignty. But the government is known to have supported at least some of the attacks in the past. It is generally understood that Pakistan's secret agreement with the U.S. on drone strikes in the past was confined to the tribal region and did not include the country's so-called "settled areas."

The Pakistani government has stepped up its vocal opposition to drone attacks since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office in June. Sharif met with President Barack Obama in Washington in October and pressed him to end the strikes. But the U.S. has shown no sign that it intends to stop using what it considers a vital tool to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Obama ramped up the use of drone strikes after he took office in 2009, and they reached a peak in 2010, when there were more than 100 attacks. The number has dropped off since then, and there have only been a little more than two dozen so far this year.

Most of the drone strikes have occurred in North Waziristan, the headquarters of the Haqqani network in Pakistan. The U.S. has repeatedly urged Pakistan to conduct an operation in North Waziristan, but the government has refused, saying its troops are stretched too thin battling domestic militants. Many analysts believe, however, that Pakistan doesn't want to cross the Haqqani network, a group with which it has historical ties and could be an ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.

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Dawar reported from Peshawar. Associated Press writer Riaz Khan contributed to this report from Peshawar.

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