An American drone strike killed four Islamist militants in Pakistan, the first such attack since errant U.S airstrikes in November killed two dozen Pakistan troops and pushed strained ties between the two nations close to collapse, Pakistani intelligence officials said Wednesday.
The attack Tuesday took place in North Waziristan, an al-Qaida and Taliban stronghold close to the Afghan border that has been pounded by U.S. strikes, the officials said. Three of the dead were Arab fighters, said the officials, who didn't give their names because they were not allowed to be named in the media.
The late-night missile launch broke the longest pause between strikes since the drone program began in earnest in 2009.
American officials say there had been no promise by Washington to avoid drone operations since the deadly Nov. 26 airstrikes along the Afghan border, but that the lull was part efforts to tamp down tensions with Pakistan, seen by many U.S. officials as key to a negotiated peace in Afghanistan.
After the American strike, Islamabad shut down vital supply routes into Afghanistan and forced the U.S. to vacate Shamsi Air Base in southwestern Baluchistan province. The U.S. used the base to service drones that targeted militants in the tribal regions close to Afghanistan.
While there has been some level of Pakistani acquiescence to the drone program, the attacks are extremely unpopular with the public, and their scope and frequency has been a source of friction between the two countries.
It was unclear whether the U.S. had given any indication that it would resume strikes, or whether the fresh attack would hamper American efforts to rebuild cooperation with Islamabad and reopen its supply routes.
The missiles struck a house around two kilometers from Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, shortly before midnight locals said. "It was an unusually big bang. Since it was extremely cold I didn't leave the house, but could see a house on fire," said Qasim Noor, a 20-year-old college student. "In the morning, we saw a modest mud house had been destroyed."
A U.S. official confirmed there had been a missile strike in the region.
An American investigation into the November airstrikes concluded that a persistent lack of trust between the U.S. and Pakistan, and a series of communications and coordination errors on both sides, led to the attacks. Pakistani officials have rejected that probe and there has been little public sign that relations between the two countries are improving.
There were more than 60 drone attacks last year, significantly less than in 2010. The attacks have killed scores of militants, among them several mid- and high-ranking commanders. American officials don't talk about the program in public, but privately say it has been vital in countering the threat from al-Qaida in one of its global hubs.
Human rights activists in Pakistan and abroad have reported significant civilian casualties as a result of the strikes. The U.S. says the strikes are accurate, but doesn't publicly investigate the allegations.
Lolita Baldor reported from Washington.