ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A U.S. missile strike Wednesday in Pakistan further inflamed relations between the two anti-terrorism allies, just hours after the American military chief vowed to "respect Pakistan's sovereignty."
The strike against suspected militants in Pakistan's tribal area, which runs along the Afghan border, is thought to be the sixth such attack this month. It came as Washington is demanding that Islamabad do more to prevent Taliban and al Qaida extremists from using its territory.
Pakistani leaders have condemned the U.S. military interventions, which include the first documented American ground raid in the country earlier this month. The strikes have caused an uproar in Pakistan.
Four missiles were fired from unmanned U.S. aircraft Wednesday at a suspected militant hideout at around 7 p.m. local time in a village in South Waziristan, killing at least six people, according to a local security official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to talk to journalists.
American strikes were used infrequently in the tribal area in the past, but there's been an intensified bombardment over the last few weeks. Washington thinks that Taliban and al Qaida fighters allied against the coalition in Afghanistan are using Pakistan's tribal territory as a refuge. Some analysts think that the Bush administration is trying to land major al Qaida scalps before the end of his term. Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahri, are thought to be most likely hiding in the tribal area.
The target of Wednesday's strike is thought to be a compound used by Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami, a militant group fighting in Afghanistan that's associated with the notorious veteran jihadist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The previous aerial assaults have killed militants, including senior al Qaida commanders, but also dozens of civilians.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was making a surprise visit to Pakistan, said in a statement released by the American Embassy in Islamabad that he "reiterated the U.S. commitment to respect Pakistan's sovereignty and to develop further U.S.-Pakistani cooperation" after talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. A separate statement from the Pentagon made no mention of respecting Pakistani sovereignty.
Mullen's arrival appeared to be a reaction to the furor caused by the American ground incursion.
It was Mullen's fifth trip to Pakistan since he took the top military job last October, not counting a leaked secret meeting at sea with Kayani last month.
"I have been encouraged by what General Kayani and the Pakistani army have been willing to do in the border regions," the Pentagon quoted Mullen as saying. "They recognize the threat they face internal to Pakistan and are improving their counterinsurgency capabilities. This is a critical part of the world."
The Pakistani army has been engaged since early August in what looks like its strongest operation against militants in another part of the tribal area, Bajaur, where it claims that more than 500 extremists have been killed.
"Pakistan would not allow anyone to take action on its soil, as it has capacity to deal with the terrorists," said Pakistan's defense minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, who spoke before the fresh strike. "But we can't pick up guns and say, 'We're coming.' We have to proceed diplomatically."
Without Pakistan's help, U.S. and coalition forces have little hope of stemming supplies and militants crossing into Afghanistan from the tribal area, analysts think. There also are signs that the American assaults could trigger a mass uprising by moderate tribesman living in the tribal territory.
"It's a very fundamental issue of Pakistani sovereignty," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general turned analyst. "This just cannot be tolerated, that there are continued violations and we are still called an ally. I think this will have to be reviewed for the sake of both sides."
The United Nations mandate for Afghanistan, under which U.S. and other international forces operate, doesn't extend to Pakistan. Pakistan has tolerated occasional American missile strikes in its tribal areas for several years, but the scale of the current attacks, along with the first American boots on Pakistani soil, has pushed relations to a crisis point.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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