US envoy in Pakistan as suspected drone kills Haqqani aide

Reuters , Thursday 13 Oct 2011

US-Pakistani top officials meet in Islamabad to discuss the anti-American Haqqani network file, which represents a major source of tension in relations between the two

A suspected U.S. drone strike killed a close aide of the commander of the Haqqani militant group in Pakistan's North Waziristan region on the Afghan border on Thursday, intelligence officials said.

The strike came as U.S. special representative Marc Grossman arrived in Islamabad to meet top officials and mend ties strained by recent U.S. allegations that Pakistan is supporting the Haqqanis, blamed for high-profile violence in Afghanistan.

Jalil Haqqani, 33, who helped organize the Haqqanis' operations, was one of four militants killed when two missiles allegedly fired by a U.S. drone struck a house in the village of Dande Darpa Khel, the officials said.

The Haqqanis, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, have emerged as a major source of tension in U.S.-Pakistani ties, with former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen calling them a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

"Jalil was a highly trusted companion of Sirajuddin. He had been with the Haqqani group for a long time and was tasked with handling communications," one intelligence official said, requesting anonymity.

The official said Jalil was Sirajuddin Haqqani's cousin, and the house targeted by the drone was owned by Mohammed Jamil, also related to Sirajuddin.

In a second attack, a suspected U.S. drone fired three missiles at a group of militants in the Zeba Pahari area of the South Waziristan border region, killing three, according to intelligence officials.

Pakistani officials have angrily denied U.S. allegations that it is helping militant groups such as the Haqqani network strike at NATO and Afghan targets in Afghanistan, including a Sept. 13 attack on the American embassy in Kabul.

"We have never paid a penny or provided even a single bullet to the Haqqani network," ISI chief Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha told Reuters recently.

The Haqqanis are believed to be based in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, but in a recent interview, Sirajuddin said his group felt secure enough to operate freely in Afghanistan and had no need of safe havens in Pakistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that the United States remains open to a peace deal including the Haqqanis.

"We are not shutting the door on trying to determine whether there is some path forward," Clinton said when asked whether she believed members of the Haqqani network might reconcile with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Sirajuddin told Reuters in September that his group would take part in peace talks, but only if the Afghan Taliban did so as well, a shift from his earlier position.

He has previously rejected several peace gestures from the United States and President Hamid Karzai's government, calling them an attempt to "create divisions" between militant groups.

Grossman, appointed in February, held meetings with Pakistan's president, prime minister, the chief of the country's powerful army and the foreign minister.

"We talked about how we can continue, in a systematic way, to identify the interests that we share with Pakistan, and there are many, and find ways to act on them jointly," he said at a brief joint media appearance with the Pakistani foreign minister.

In a statement from Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's office, the premier said U.S.-Pakistan relations should expand beyond counter-terrorism and that both sides had agreed to pursue cooperation in trade, water and power and infrastructure.

Grossman's visit comes at a time of some of the worst tensions in U.S.-Pakistani ties, already badly strained after a May 2 commando raid killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who had apparently been living in a garrison town near Islamabad for nearly five years.

Clinton said on Wednesday the United States had no choice but to work with Pakistan in trying to stabilize Afghanistan.

"As frustrating as it is," she said at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress in Washington, while answering questions, "we just keep every day going at it and I think we make slow, sometimes barely discernible progress."

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