By Hafiz Wazir
WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) - A missile strike by a suspected U.S. drone aircraft on Monday killed at least 14 militants in Pakistan's South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, intelligence officials said.
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 a drone strike late on Friday.
"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 hit the compound and a nearby Islamic seminary, killing 14 people, including seven foreigners. Some were killed as they were retrieving the bodies of comrades killed in the first strike.
There was no way to independently verify the deaths. Militants often dispute official casualty tolls.
Pakistan's army launched a big offensive in South Waziristan in 2009 against homegrown Taliban insurgents, forcing many of them to flee to neighboring North Waziristan.
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 drone strikes are highly unpopular in Pakistani because they 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 and help them recruit.
Pakistani officials are less likely to condemn the strikes now because they are under intense pressure to prove they are committed to fighting militancy since it was discovered that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had apparently been living in Pakistan for years. He was killed by U.S. special forces on May 2.
One of the intelligence officials said Pakistanis killed in the latest strikes were 'Punjabi Taliban', a term used for insurgents from Pakistan's heartland province.
Their intricate alliances with militants in the northwest are seen as one of the biggest threats to the security of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
U.S. officials have said drones are a highly effective tool against high-profile militants. Analysts say tracking and killing those fighters would be impossible without cooperation from Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Pakistan's interior minister said on Sunday he was "98 percent sure" Kashmiri had been killed in a U.S. drone strike near the Afghan border. A militant commander from a group that controls the area around Wana also said that Kashmiri had been killed.
U.S. officials in Washington said however they were highly skeptical of reports that Kashmiri was dead.
(Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Michael Georgy)