By Javed Hussain
PARACHINAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Suspected U.S. drones fired missiles into Pakistan's Kurram region on Monday and killed at least seven militants, local officials said, in the first strike in the lawless tribal region in a recently stepped up campaign by unmanned American aircraft.
The U.S. forces have intensified missile strikes by remotely-controlled drones in Pakistan's border regions since the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. SEALs in the country last month.
Seventy-three militants have been killed in missile strikes by U.S. drones this month, according to a Reuters tally based on statements from intelligence officials.
Most of these strikes focused on Waziristan -- a major al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary -- but Monday's attack targeted militants in Kurram, another tribal region north of Waziristan.
"Four missiles were fired by drones and seven militants were killed," an intelligence official in the region told Reuters.
Another intelligence official said the missiles targeted two militant compounds and a vehicle in the Khardand area, a stronghold of Fazal Saeed, a local militant commander.
Saeed is closely linked to the Haqqani network -- one the most feared Afghan militant groups fighting U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan, officials say.
Kurram is an unusual target, and could mark a further expansion of the U.S. campaign against militants that have holed up in North and South Waziristan.
North Waziristan is the major base for the Haqqani network and security officials say many of its fighters and their local allies are believed to have fled to Kurram -- after cutting a deal with Shi'ite Muslim tribesmen last year -- and other neighboring tribal regions, amid speculations that Pakistan army might launch an offensive in North Waziristan.
Pakistan has long publicly opposed U.S. drone strikes, saying they complicate Islamabad efforts to win over the people and isolate the militants in border regions.
But the United States sees these attacks as an effective tool to stem cross-border attacks by militants on foreign forces in Afghanistan.
In Miranshah in North Waziristan, about 1,500 tribesmen staged a general strike on Monday to protest against the drone attacks. They threatened to take up arms against the Pakistan army if drone attacks continued.
"We know this is happening under a secret deal with Pakistan. The soldiers based in Miranshah and elsewhere in North Waziristan are American agents," a cleric, Mohammad Alam, told a rally in Miranshah.
"If these drones strikes continue, we want to send message from this stage that nobody will hesitate to fight these soldiers," he said.
Militants in North Waziristan have agreed not to attack security forces there in return for the freedom to operate inside Afghanistan from their bases.
If they decide to scrap the deal, it could further destabilize Pakistan, already under pressure from the United States and its Western allies to mount offensives against militants after U.S. forces found and killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month.
Pakistani officials say, however, that its military is already overstretched. It also wants a commitment from the United States that its troops will secure its side of the border. Otherwise, it says, its own troops and people become vulnerable to attack by militants based on the Afghan side.
(Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Alex Richardson)