ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - In what could herald as an intensified American campaign against Islamic insurgents in Pakistan's tribal areas, a suspected U.S. missile attack killed at least nine people near the Afghan border, local officials said yesterday.
It was not immediately known whether any senior insurgent figures were among the dead, but officials in the South Waziristan tribal agency said those killed included "foreigners" - often used to mean al-Qaida operatives and commanders from outside Pakistan.
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad disavowed knowledge of the missile strike, which tribal sources and Pakistani military officials said was carried out late Tuesday. But such attacks against al-Qaida and other significant militant figures that are carried out by CIA-operated drones in the area are rarely acknowledged publicly by either Pakistani or U.S. officials.
Adding to the air of crisis, a late-night suicide strike outside a police station in the eastern city of Lahore killed at least five people as crowds gathered to begin celebrating Pakistan's Independence Day today.
The incidents, coupled with a recent bout of intense fighting in Bajur, another tribal area abutting the Afghan border, came as Pakistan wrestled with a growing battle over demands that President Pervez Musharraf step down or face impeachment.
In a boost to the impeachment drive by the ruling coalition, a third provincial assembly, this one in southern Sindh province, overwhelmingly approved yesterday a nonbinding resolution calling on Musharraf to agree to a vote of confidence by regional and national lawmakers or relinquish his post. Two other regional parliaments approved a similar resolution earlier this week.
Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally who until late last year was also chief of Pakistan's military, has so far resisted attempts by the five-month-old ruling coalition, made up of former opposition figures, to oust him.
The president, a former elite commando, has shown no signs of acquiescing to critics' demands. But some longtime allies have been deserting him or distancing themselves as public pressure mounts for him to step aside.
Addressing a pre-Independence Day ceremony last night, Musharraf made no direct reference to his own predicament but accused unnamed foes of "conspiracies" against state institutions.
Pakistan's powerful army, led by one-time Musharraf protege Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has signaled it will seek to remain neutral in the political confrontation. In the past, Pakistan's military has often intervened when it perceives civilian governments as being in turmoil.
The escalating political tensions in Pakistan paralleled the most serious outbreak of fighting in months along the Afghan frontier. Thousands of refugees have fled amid battles between government forces and militants holed up in the arid, rugged border zone, where the writ of law carries little force.
The Pakistani army said it killed about 25 militants in airstrikes yesterday.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.