By Hafiz Wazir
WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Missile strikes by a suspected U.S. drone aircraft on Monday killed at least 17 militants in Pakistan's South Waziristan, intelligence officials said, following reports that a top al Qaeda operative was killed in the region last week.
Monday's drone attack near the Afghan border, the biggest since March, may signal that the CIA identified high-value al Qaeda or Taliban targets in South Waziristan. Drone missile strikes usually focus on North Waziristan.
A Pakistani security official said he believed the drone strikes have escalated in South Waziristan because speculation that the Pakistani army planned to mount an offensive in North Waziristan prompted militants to head south.
"The missiles hit a militant compound in the mountains near Wana," a local intelligence official said, referring to the main town of the ethnic Pashtun South Waziristan region.
Intelligence officials said two drone strikes in one operation hit the compound and a nearby Islamic seminary, killing 14 people, including seven Arab nationals.
In another drone strike on the border between North and South Waziristan, a missile hit a vehicle, killing three militants about 50 km (30 miles) away from the first assault.
There was no way to independently verify the deaths. Militants often dispute official casualty tolls.
U.S. drone attacks along the frontier, seen as a global hub for militants, have come into sharper focus since Pakistani officials said senior al Qaeda operative Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in one in South Waziristan late on Friday.
American officials in Washington said they were highly skeptical of reports that Kashmiri was dead.
"The intensity (in drone strikes) is all because many militants have begun moving to the south after reports of a military operation in North Waziristan," a senior security official told Reuters.
If fighters are leaving North Waziristan, that highlights a problem Pakistan's army often faces in its campaign against insurgents. They simply move around when the heat is on.
Pakistan's The News newspaper has reported that the military would launch an offensive against militant safe havens in North Waziristan. One of Pakistan's top military commanders later ruled out an imminent assault.
The army launched a big offensive against homegrown Taliban insurgents in South Waziristan in 2009, forcing many of them to flee to neighboring North Waziristan.
DRONES FUEL ANTI-AMERICAN SENTIMENT
But that operation was not extended to the Wana area, because it is home to militants who are not opposed to the Pakistani state and focus on crossing the border to fight U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan to launch a major operation in North Waziristan to go after the Haqqani network, which is based there. That group is perhaps the most feared of the Taliban-allied insurgent factions fighting U.S.-led NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been reluctant, analysts say, because it sees the Haqqanis as a counterweight against the growing influence of rival India in Afghanistan.
The CIA may have stepped up drone strikes in South Waziristan after receiving information that the Haqqanis or other militants high on its hit list had fled there.
"Militant leaders will now be moving from North to South Waziristan -- that is why the drone strikes are taking place -- suddenly the momentum has shifted," said Abdul Basit, a senior researcher at the Pakistan Institute for Peace.
Drone strikes are highly unpopular in Pakistan because they sometimes kill civilians and are seen as a violation of the South Asian nation's sovereignty.
Pakistani officials have criticized them, saying the strikes anger the public and play into the hands of militants. But strikes that kill high-profile militants would not be possible without Pakistani intelligence, analysts say.
The United States reiterated its call on Pakistan to become a more reliable partner in its fight against militancy since it was discovered that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had apparently been living in Pakistan for years. He was killed by American special forces on May 2.
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider, Kamran Haider and Rebecca Conway in Islamabad and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Alex Richardson)