By Bill RoggioJune 23, 2009 12:30 PM
The US carried out its second Predator airstrike inside South Waziristan today. Unmanned Predator aircraft killed 17 Taliban fighters in an attack near the headquarters for Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
The Predator strike aircraft fired three Hellfire missiles as Taliban fighters gathered for a funeral of Commander Sangeen, a leader in Baitullah's army in South Waziristan who was among six Taliban fighters killed in the first US airstrike earlier today.
The attack took place in the town of Makeen, a stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud, according to Geo News. The US has hit Taliban facilities in the Makeen region three times since June 14. The Pakistani Air Force has also launched several attacks in the region.
These attacks coincided with an important meeting between Baitullah and a senior delegation of Taliban and al Qaeda leaders to discuss the military's operation in South Waziristan. Among those in attendance were Siraj Haqqani, Abu Yahya al Libi, Abdul Haq, and two senior deputies of Mullah Abdullah Zakir. The US appears to have targeted al Qaeda’s senior leadership as it met with Baitullah.
Today's Predator strikes also take place as the Pakistani military is in the opening phase of its operation to destroy Baitullah's network in South Waziristan. The military has conducted air and artillery attacks to soften up Taliban positions and is moving ground troops forward while working to secure the main road in the tribal agency. Baitullah is rumored to have left South Waziristan and is said to be sheltering in Mir Ali in neighboring North Waziristan, under the care of Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar.
South Waziristan is a major focus of the US air campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Of the 24 US strikes carried out in Pakistan this year, 16 of them took place in South Waziristan. Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Nazir's areas have been hit eight times each this year. Both Nazir and Baitullah host al Qaeda training camps and shelter senior leaders of the terror group.
Today's two attacks are the fourth and fifth US air incursions inside Pakistan since June 14. The uptick in strikes indicates the US has re-launched its campaign against the training camps and the networks that host al Qaeda's external operations branch, the unit assigned to attack US and Western allies.
Prior to the June 14 Predator attack against Baitullah in his stronghold of Makeen, there had been a month-long lull since the US last targeted Taliban or al Qaeda leaders or camps in Pakistan. The US has been under pressure to halt the attacks due to civilian casualties. The Pakistani government denounces the attacks while it secretly supports the operations.
The US is set to exceed last year's total of 36 airstrikes in Pakistan.
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