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US drone attacks target tribal area

At least seven people have been killed after suspected US drones fired missiles at a vehicle and a house in north-west Pakistan during a rare attack in an area where some of Nato's fiercest enemies have reportedly travelled, Pakistani officials said.

The first attack in the Kurram tribal area hit a vehicle, killing five suspected militants, said Noor Alam, a local government official. As tribesmen rushed to the scene, the vehicle was struck again, killing two more people, he said.

Minutes later, a suspected US drone attacked a nearby house, but it is not yet clear whether that strike caused any casualties, Mr Alam said.

The identities of the suspected militants killed in the strikes in Kurram are not yet known. The attacks were confirmed by two Pakistani intelligence officials.

US president Barack Obama's administration has stepped up covert CIA drone attacks against militants in Pakistan, but there have only been a handful of strikes in the Kurram tribal area.

Most of the recent drone strikes have taken place in North Waziristan, an important sanctuary for the Haqqani network, which US military officials have said is the most dangerous militant group battling foreign forces in Afghanistan.

The US has repeatedly asked Pakistan to launch an offensive against the network in North Waziristan, but the military has said its forces are stretched too thin by other operations in the tribal areas. As a result, the US has stepped up drone attacks in the area. The strikes in Kurram could signal an expansion of this effort.

Drone attacks are extremely unpopular in Pakistan and have generated tension between Washington and Islamabad, which increased following the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden last month and humiliated the Pakistani government.

The US refuses to publicly acknowledge drone attacks in Pakistan, but officials have said privately that they have killed senior Taliban and al Qaida commanders. Pakistani officials regularly criticise the drone strikes in public, but some are believed to support them in private depending on which militants they target. At least some of the drones are also widely believed to take off from bases inside Pakistan.

Analysts have said that Pakistani officials probably support drone strikes that target the Pakistani Taliban, which has declared war on the state and carried out scores of deadly attacks across the country. But officials are probably less inclined to support strikes against the Haqqani network, which has historical ties to the Pakistani government and has focused its attacks against foreign forces in Afghanistan.

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