UPDATE 2-U.S. drone strike kills key Pakistan Taliban commander-sources

Reuters Middle East

(Updates with successor chosen, funeral, quotes)

WANA, Pakistan, Jan 3 (Reuters) - A U.S. drone strike killed

a key Taliban commander, his deputy and eight others in

northwest Pakistan, intelligence sources and tribal leaders said

Thursday, deaths that could substantially alter the power

balance in the Taliban heartland of Waziristan.

Maulvi Nazir Wazir, also known as Mullah Nazir, was killed

on Wednesday night when missiles struck a mud house in South

Waziristan, near the Afghan border, intelligence sources and

residents said.

He had survived at least one previous drone attack and was

wounded weeks earlier in a bomb attack believed to have been

launched by Taliban rivals.

His key commanders and his deputy, Ratta Khan, were also

killed in the attack at Angoor Adda, near the provincial capital

of Wana, sources said.

Nazir had expelled foreign militants from his area, favoured

attacking American forces in Afghanistan and had signed

non-aggression pacts with the Pakistani military in 2007 in

2009. That put him at odds with some other Pakistan Taliban

commanders, but earned him a reputation as a "good" Taliban

among some in the Pakistan military.

Nazir's successor was announced in front of a crowd of

thousands at his funeral, a witness said. People will be

watching closely to see if fellow Wazir tribesman Salahud Din

Ayubi continues with Nazir's policies.

The military has a large base in Wana, where Nazir and his

men were based. Nazir presided over an uneasy peace between the

militants and the army there, but the truce was endangered by

the military's alliance with the United States and drone

strikes, a military officer said recently.

"The (drone) programme is making things very difficult for

us. Nazir is the sole remaining major militant leader willing to

be an ally," he said.

"If he decides to side with (Pakistan Taliban leader)

Hakimullah, thousands of fighters will come to the frontlines

against the Pakistani military. It is in our interest to keep

him neutral, if not on our side, because then we can direct our

resources against anti-state militants with much greater

efficiency."

PRAYERS FOR "OUR HERO"

Militants have launched a string of attacks in Pakistan in

recent months, including shooting dead 16 aid workers and an

attack by multiple suicide bombers on the airport in the

northern city of Peshawar.

Residents said the main market in Wana shut down on Thursday

to mark Nazir's death. The were calls over loudspeakers for

prayers for his soul.

"The tribesmen are very grieved at his death as he was our

hero. He had expelled all the foreign militants from our

villages and towns and given real freedom to our people," a

local shopkeeper in Wana bazaar, Siraj Noor Wazir, said.

Foreign militants, particularly Uzbeks, are disliked in some

parts of the Pakistani tribal areas because of their perceived

brutality towards civilians.

Nazir was wounded in the market in a bombing in November,

widely believed to be a result of his rivalries with other

Taliban commanders. Six others were killed in the same attack.

Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban draw support from

ethnic Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani

border. Rivalry between militant factions often reflects old

rivalries between Pashtun tribes.

Shortly after the bombing, Nazir's Wazir tribe told the

Mehsud tribe, related to Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, to

leave the area. Hakimullah Mehsud's men frequently target the

Pakistani army.

The army has clawed back territory from the Taliban since

launching a military offensive in 2009. North Waziristan, along

the Afghan border, is now the key Pakistan Taliban stronghold.

Pakistan's ally the United States is eager for it to push

further forward into North Waziristan before NATO troops begin

drawing down in Afghanistan in 2014 but the military says it

needs to consolidate its gains.

Senior U.S. officials have frequently charged that some

elements within Pakistan's security services retain ties to some

Taliban commanders because they wish to use the Taliban to

counter the influence of archrival India.

Four men in a car were killed in North Waziristan in a

separate drone strike, local residents said. Their identity was

not immediately known.

Intensified U.S. drone strikes have killed many senior

Taliban leaders, including the former leader of the Pakistani

Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, in 2009.

The strikes dramatically increased when U.S. President

Barack Obama took office. There were only five drone strikes in

2007. The number of strikes peaked at 117 in 2010 before

declining to 46 last year.

Data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism say

that between 2,600-3,404 Pakistanis have been killed by drones,

of which 473-889 were reported to be civilians.

Rights groups say that some residents are so afraid of the

strikes they don't want to leave their homes.

"People of Wazir tribe are mourning Nazir's death but they

are reluctant to attend his funeral because of fears of another

drone attack," one resident said.

Civilian casualties are difficult to verify. Foreign

journalists must have permission from the military to visit the

tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Taliban fighters also often seal off the sites of drone

strikes immediately so Pakistani journalists cannot see the

victims.

Some Pakistanis say the drone strikes are an infringement of

sovereignty and have called for a halt. Others, including some

residents of the tribal areas, say they are killing Taliban

commanders who have terrorized the local population.

The insecurity will be a key issue in elections scheduled

for this spring. The nuclear-armed nation of 180 million has a

history of military coups, but these polls should mark the first

time one elected civilian government hands power to another.

(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan,

Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, and Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Katharine

Houreld in Islamabad; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by

Nick Macfie)

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