Drone kills six in northwest Pakistan, army seizes most of key city from Taliban

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik MIRANSHAH Pakistan (Reuters) - Missiles from a U.S. drone slammed into a mud house and killed six suspected militants in Pakistan's rugged northwest on Thursday, officials said, as the Pakistani military said it had seized control of 80 percent of a key city from the Taliban. Drone strikes in Pakistan resumed after a six-month hiatus, days before the military launched an air campaign on June 15 to drive Pakistani Taliban militants out of the remote border region of North Waziristan. Thursday's strike in the Datta Khel district killed six militants and injured two, security officials said. The site of the strike was about 45 km (28 miles) west of the regional capital of Miranshah, near the Afghan border. A senior officer took reporters on a tour of the region on Wednesday to underscore what the military says is a successful offensive to bring under control 80 percent of Miranshah, North Waziristan's main town. The region, the base of some of the country's most feared al Qaeda linked terrorists, has been sealed off and there is no way to verify the military's accounts or casualty figures. But the presence of many senior officers during the tour suggested that the army had secured broad control over the area. Reporters were led through sites ranging from dingy two-room shops to large buildings piled high with cylinders and explosives, all described as workplaces to manufacture bombs. Also on display was a complex of a couple of dozen rooms with a courtyard, described as a training site for suicide bombers. "North Waziristan had transformed into a hub and safe haven for terrorists of all colours and creeds," General Zafarullah Khan, the region's commander, said the military's sprawling headquarters. "But with the operation, 80 percent of Miranshah and the adjoining areas has been cleared." FAILED NEGOTIATIONS The army launched the offensive after months of failed negotiations between the government and the militants, punctuated by Taliban attacks. A brazen assault last month on the airport in the southern city of Karachi killed 34. The army responded by dispatching fighters to bomb suspected militant hideouts in North Waziristan. It ordered the region's entire civilian population - estimated at about half a million - to leave and pushed on with a ground offensive on June 30. Pakistan's army had previously operated strictly within its Miranshah headquarters. The rest of the city, including homes, schools, shops and even hospitals, was under Taliban control. Since the air operation began, 400 militants have been killed and 130 injured, the military's public relations wing said. Twenty-four soldiers had been killed and 19 injured. The extent of civilian casualties is unclear. Khan said the insurgents, many of them ethnic Uzbeks and Chinese Uighurs as well as indigenous fighters, were on the defensive. "We have set up 250 military checkposts to seal off their movements," he said. "We have found 11 (bomb) factories in Miranshah alone and 23,000 kg of explosive material. The militants' communications and operational capabilities have been greatly reduced." Residents, however, suggest that many militants moved out of the area before it was secured and Khan agreed some fighters may have escaped the onslaught. "It’s not militarily possible to create airtight security from where individual terrorists can’t escape," he said. "It will be wrong to say some leaders didn’t escape. They smelt the operation and left. But their exodus on a large scale was denied." (Additional reporting by Haji Mujtaba in Bannu and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Ron Popeski)