REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- An apparent U.S. drone strike early Thursday in northwest Pakistan killed a top Pakistani Taliban commander also serving as a key Al Qaeda operative, local officials said.
The death of Badar Mansoor, 35, comes as the U.S. steps up its pace of drone missile strikes following a six-week hiatus after an American airstrike accidentally killed Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November.
The predawn strike occurred in North Waziristan, the volatile tribal region that serves as sanctuary for several militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban and the wing of the Afghan Taliban known as the Haqqani network. The blast hit Mansoor’s compound near a cattle market in Miram Shah, North Waziristan’s largest town.
Pakistani intelligence sources described Mansoor as an Al Qaeda operative who also led a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, the country’s homegrown insurgency. He was believed to be from Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and was responsible for bringing scores of Punjabi militants to Taliban camps in North Waziristan.
The step-up in drone strikes comes as tension between Washington and Islamabad has been easing in the aftermath of errant U.S. airstrikes Nov. 26 that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
A Pentagon investigation concluded that U.S. forces acted in self-defense after a U.S. special operations unit scouring an Afghan village for militants and weapons caches came under heavy machine gun fire and mortar shelling from a ridge line where Pakistani army outposts were located.
Pakistani military officials told U.S. commanders that their posts were being fired on, but U.S. reliance on wrong mapping information contributed to a misunderstanding by American forces about the actual location of the Pakistani soldiers, the investigation concluded. Firing on the Pakistani border posts continued for more than 90 minutes.
The airstrike infuriated Pakistani leaders, who retaliated by shutting down border crossings used by convoys delivering supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and ordering the U.S. to vacate an air base in southern Pakistan that in the past has been suspected as being involved with CIA drone attacks.
The incident further damaged ties between the U.S. and Pakistan at a time when Islamabad is needed to help broker peace talks with Afghan Taliban insurgents that use Pakistan’s tribal border region as sanctuary.
The U.S. halted drone strikes on suspected militant strongholds in the tribal areas for six weeks, and resumed the missile campaign Jan. 11. That attack in North Waziristan killed a top Al Qaeda planner, Aslam Awan, and since then Washington has carried out several drone strikes in the tribal region.
Pakistani officials have signaled that they may soon reopen the country’s border crossings used by NATO convoys.
In another sign that tensions between the two countries are easing, U.S. Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, is reportedly scheduled to meet with Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani later this month to discuss the Nov. 26 border incident. The meeting would mark the first visit by a high-ranking U.S. official since the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers.
-- Alex Rodriguez. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed.
Photo: A Pakistani protester holds a burning U.S. flag as a crowd shouts slogans during a protest in Multan on Thursday against the U.S. drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region. Credit: S.S. Mirza / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images