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U.S. Said To Be Weighing Expanded Covert War In Pakistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding the covert U.S. war in Pakistan far beyond the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan, "The New York Times" has reported.

Two high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan that have been forwarded to the White House in recent weeks have called for broadening the target area to reach the Taliban and other insurgent groups to a major sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta, the newspaper said on its website, citing senior administration officials.

Missile strikes by Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones have until now been limited to the tribal areas, and never been extended into Baluchistan, a sprawling province under the authority of Pakistan's central government, and which is next to parts of Afghanistan where recent fighting has been fiercest, the newspaper website said.

Some American officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some leaders of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to flee toward Quetta, making them more vulnerable, "The Times" said.

Pakistan objects to the missile strikes, saying they are not only a violation of its sovereignty but complicate its efforts to tackle militants.

Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said on March 18 that he was aware of "The New York Times" report.

"As we have been saying all along, we believe such attacks are counterproductive," he said. "They involve collateral damage and they are not helpful in our efforts to win hearts and minds."

Many of Obama's advisers are also urging him to sustain orders issued last summer by former President George W. Bush to continue Predator drone attacks against a wider range of targets in the tribal areas, and to conduct crossborder ground actions, using CIA and Special Operations commandos.

"The Times" said a spokesman for the National Security Council had declined to provide details, saying only: "We're still working hard to finalise the review on Afghanistan and Pakistan that the president requested."

No other official would talk on the record on the issue, citing the administration's deliberations and the politically volatile nature of strikes into Pakistan's territory, the report said.