Pakistan militants escape attack by US drone

The targets of a suspected United States missile attack in Pakistan's north-west militant strongholds appeared to have survived yesterday by quickly abandoning their vehicle after a drone aircraft missed its first shot, local officials said.

It was one of the few reports of anyone surviving one of the escalating barrage of missiles fired by unmanned aircraft, which have become a key weapon in the wider war against Islamist militants in Afghanistan.

Pakistani television initially reported four people killed in the latest American attack in North Waziristan, where Taleban and al-Qaeda allies control safe havens outside the central government's control.

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However, two Pakistani intelligence officials who investigated said that no bodies were found and all their sources indicated the occupants of the car survived the attack, near the village of Hassan Khel.

They said an American drone fired one of its missiles but missed the speeding vehicle, and its occupants quickly bailed out before the second missile hit and destroyed it.

Yesterday's strike was the 13th this month. The US has sharply increased its search-and-destroy programme, launching more than 110 missiles this year in hopes of killing militant leaders who run terrorist training camps and plot attacks on Nato troops across the border in Afghanistan.

The missiles appear to have been increasingly targeting moving vehicles - five of the six strikes in the past two weeks hit cars or lorries - which shows off the drones' usually precise aim.

Pakistan officially condemns the attacks as a violation of its sovereignty and critics say they amount to an assassination campaign that may be against international law.

However, the government in Islamabad tacitly allows the American aircraft to operate on its territory.