MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pilotless U.S. drones fired 18 missiles into a Pakistani sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters on the Afghan border today, killing at least 10 militants, residents and security officials said.
The United States has stepped up drone strikes on militant sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border since a December 30 suicide bombing killed seven CIA employees at a U.S. base in the eastern Afghan province of Khost.
The latest drone attack, the 13th this month according to a Reuters tally, was the heaviest ever in terms of the number of missiles fired. The U.S aircraft targeted several militant compounds in the North Waziristan ethnic Pashtun border region.
"The death toll for now is 10 but it could be more. Fire is still raging where the missiles struck," a Pakistani security official in the region told Reuters.
Two vehicles belonging to the militants were also destroyed in the strike on Datta Khel, a village 30 kilometers west of North Waziristan's main town of Miranshah, said another security official who also declined to be identified.
Datta Khel is a stronghold of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Taliban commander who harbors and sends militants across the border to fight Western forces in Afghanistan.
The United States sees the elimination of militant enclaves in northwest Pakistan as vital for bringing stability to Afghanistan.
But the drone strikes are a source of friction with Pakistan, which says they are a violation of its sovereignty. Islamabad has demanded that the United States provide it with drone aircraft so it can hit militants on its own.
U.S. officials say the missile strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistan leaders to decry the attacks in public. Pakistan denies this.
Ten days after the attack on the CIA in Afghanistan by a Jordanian double agent -- the second bloodiest in the agency's history -- Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud appeared sitting beside the bomber in a farewell video.
On January 14, a U.S. drone targeted Mehsud in neighboring South Waziristan. The Taliban later issued an audio tape purportedly from Mehsud, denying he had been killed.
State-run Pakistan Television reported last week that Mehsud died of wounds sustained in a similar strike carried out in South Waziristan on January 17.
The Taliban have denied the report. The army says it is trying to check it.
Pakistan's army launched a major offensive against Mehsud's bastion in South Waziristan in mid-October and has captured most of his bases.
The United States has praised Pakistan's efforts but wants it to extend its crackdown on insurgents who cross the border to fight Western forces in Afghanistan, notably from North Waziristan.
Pakistan says it does not have enough resources to open new fronts and must focus on the Pakistani Taliban have hit back with bombs that have killed hundreds since October.
Last August, a U.S. drone killed Mehsud's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in South Waziristan.