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U.S. Drone Attack Kills 15 In Pakistan's Waziristan

Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud in October
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- A U.S. drone aircraft fired missiles in Pakistan's South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, killing at least 15 militants today, Pakistani security officials said.

The United States has stepped up pilotless drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions since a December 30 suicide bombing killed seven CIA employees at a U.S. base in neighboring Afghanistan.

"Now the death toll is 15. It could rise further. People are still busy removing rubble," a senior security official told Reuters. Most of the casualties were foreign fighters, he added.

Ten days after the Afghanistan attack by a Jordanian double agent -- the second bloodiest in the agency's history -- Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud appeared sitting beside the suicide bomber in a farewell video.

The bomber said he would avenge the death of a Taliban leader killed in a drone strike last year and called for attacks in and outside the United States.

The clip raised Mehsud's profile and suggested his group -- which has been fighting the Pakistani state -- was now a greater force to be reckoned with and had forged closer ties with Al-Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

Pakistani Taliban militants issued an audio tape on January 16 purportedly from Mehsud, denying he had been killed in a U.S. missile strike two days earlier.

Taliban militants, who want to topple the government and tightly control society with their radical interpretation of Islamic rule, have responded to a government offensive launched in October with bombings that have killed hundreds of people.

Many of Mehsud's bases were destroyed in the crackdown, the army said.

No Sanctuaries Allowed

Interior Minister Rehman Malik called on Taliban militants today to lay down their arms.

"These militants will not be allowed to have sanctuaries in Pakistan. They still have the chance to lay down their arms and to repent for their sins," he said in a statement.

"Otherwise, whether it's Hakimullah Mehsud or Wali-ur-Rehman [a senior Taliban commander], they will meet a very grave and terrible fate."

The pilotless drone strikes are a source of friction between the United States and Pakistan, which says they are a violation of its sovereignty. U.S. officials say the missile strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to decry the attacks in public. Islamabad denies this.

Washington says they are an effective weapon in tribal areas in northwest Pakistan along the Afghan border seen as a global hub for militants, including senior Al-Qaeda and Taliban figures.

Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure to tackle Afghan militant groups who use its lawless tribal areas as a rear base for fighting Western troops in Afghanistan, saying they are focused on homegrown Taliban enemies.