Near Miss: CIA Drone Almost Hits Taliban Chief in Pakistan

Strike's Target was Baitullah Mehsud, Implicated in Murder of Benazir Bhutto


June 26, 2009—

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A CIA drone strike earlier this week just missed the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, killing at least 65 people at a funeral he attended and damaging his personal car, according to a resident and a Pakistani intelligent agent in the area.

The strike's target was Baitullah Mehsud, who Pakistan has blamed for the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and dozens of other attacks across the country. Pakistan is currently preparing for a war against Mehsud in the rugged South Waziristan tribal district, and the CIA has increased its attempts to kill him in the past 6 months.

U.S. intelligence officials say they believe Mehsud is "still among the living." But this appears to be the closest that a drone strike has come to killing Mehsud. He was attended the Tuesday funeral prayer, which lasts no more than a minute and a half, the resident of the area said. 2 missiles struck right after the prayer was finished as most of the mourners were leaving the open-air funeral.

Mehsud was in that group of mourners, but the missile appears to have hit a relatively small area where Mehsud was not standing.

"Only if it had landed 15-20 seconds before, it would have hit a lot more people and maybe" Mehsud himself, the resident said.

Mehsud had not left the village, Zangara, and his car was close enough to the explosion site that it was damaged, the resident said.

A Taliban commander named Sangin, who was close to Mehsud, was killed in the strike, the intelligence agent and the resident said.

CIA Declines to Comment on Drone Strike

The CIA declined to comment, its standard response to all questions about drone operations. The attack was the deadliest ever strike by a U.S. drone on Pakistani soil.

It was also the first time that a drone targeted a funeral, which was being held for a Taliban commander named Khwazh Wali. Wali had been killed earlier the same day in a separate drone strike, and more than 1,000 people had come to pay their respects, according to the resident.

According to an ABC News tally at least 22 missile strikes have hit targets in the tribal areas this year, a marked increase that began last summer. In 2008 there were at least 36 attacks, 32 of which after August.

Local residents, U.S. and Pakistani officials all say the strikes have become more accurate, causing fewer civilian casualties than in the past.

The targets have also expanded. Initially, the strikes were aimed at militants who posed threats to the United States or to U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- mostly Arab al Qaeda leaders and Taliban commanders who sent fighters across the border.

But the strikes now routinely target Mehsud, who focuses his attacks on Pakistani targets and not American targets in Afghanistan or beyond.

Some Pakistani officials have said the strikes are like kryptonite and hamper their efforts to convince a skeptical public that the war against the Taliban is a Pakistani-led war instead of one dictated by the U.S.

Pakistan officially condemns the drone attacks and did so the day after the one that missed Mehsud.

"It has been Pakistan's consistent position that drone attacks are a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and must be stopped," a foreign ministry press release declared. "We are in regular contact with the U.S. and our serious concerns on the recent strikes have been put across strongly."

But that rebuke was relatively tame and arrived more than a full day after the twin drone attacks. U.S. officials say behind the scenes, Pakistan's government quietly approves of the attacks, especially when they target Mehsud and do not cause civilian casualties.

Mehsud is Enemy Number One in Pakistan

That is because Pakistan, which is currently fighting with militants linked with Mehsud in Swat, has painted Mehsud as enemy number one. The military has announced plans to target him during a major operation in South Waziristan, though it has not said when.

Pakistani air force jets have already begun launching airstrikes in the area, and soldiers are massing right outside South Waziristan, Pakistani military official say.

In March the U.S. announced it would pay $5 million for any information leading to Mehsud's death or capture. He has threatened to attack Washington, D.C. and has claimed credit for attacks across Pakistan far from his base along the Afghan border.

But his reach beyond the Pakistani tribal areas is thought to be based on an alliance with terror groups based in Punjab, near the border with India, and not just a product of his fighters' ability to infiltrate cities across the country.

Pakistani officials believe Mehsud and Punjabi groups have combined to launch some of the largest terrorist attacks in Pakistani history, including last year's bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, and the bombing of a regional spy agency office in Lahore last month.

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