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18 killed in US missile strikes

US drones have fired missiles at three hideouts in a key militant sanctuary close to the Afghan border, killing 18 suspected insurgents.

The strike is the latest conducted this week despite protests from Islamabad, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

The strikes all took place in the North Waziristan tribal area, the target of a planned Pakistani military operation that the US expects in the near future.

Hundreds of militants and their family members have streamed out of North Waziristan in the past few days in anticipation of the operation, local residents said.

Washington has long demanded Pakistan target militants holed up in North Waziristan and has welcomed the planned operation in the area. But Islamabad is likely to focus on Taliban militants who have been at war with Pakistan, not those who have been fighting the US-led coalition in neighbouring Afghanistan.

In a string of strikes just minutes apart, US missiles slammed into mud brick compounds located several miles from each other in the Shawal Valley, a heavily forested, mountainous area in North Waziristan that serves as one of the key crossing points for militants heading into Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

Eighteen suspected militants were killed and another 14 were wounded, officials said.

The US has carried out seven drone strikes in the past week in North Waziristan, ignoring repeated Pakistani protests that they violate the country's sovereignty and international law. The covert CIA attacks have increasingly become a point of public conflict between the two countries, complicating an already troubled relationship that is vital to the outcome of war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry summoned a senior US diplomat to protest the strikes, and the ministry's spokesman, Moazzam Ahmad Khan, called the attacks "illegal, unproductive" during his weekly press briefing.

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