US considers expanding strikes to Baluchistan
President Barack Obama and his top aides are considering expanding covert operations against Taliban leaders in Pakistan to southwestern Baluchistan province, the New York Times reported yesterday.
Two reports sent to the White House call for broadening the target area to include the region in and around the Pakistani city of Quetta, the Times reported, citing unnamed senior administration officials.
Quetta, located some 70 kilometres from the border with Afghanistan, is the capital of Baluchistan province.
Up to now missile strikes launched by US drones against insurgents who carry out attacks in Afghanistan have been limited to Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas, the Times reports.
"It is fair to say that there is wide agreement to sustain and continue these covert programs," an unnamed senior US administration official told the newspaper.
"One of the foundations on which the recommendations to the president will be based is that we've got to sustain the disruption of the safe havens."
On the issue of Baluchistan however, top Obama advisers however are split.
Some fear that such strikes could increase tensions with Pakistan, which said in late February it wanted to discuss ending controversial US drone attacks inside its territory.
Quetta, which has an estimated population of just under one million, is a possible refuge for Taliban leaders who fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in late 2001 that toppled the hardline regime.
Unlike the semi-autonomous tribal belt, Baluchistan -- which borders Iran and Afghanistan -- is under the authority of the central government.
Baluchistan province has rich energy resources but is rife with regional insurgency and sectarian violence involving Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremists.
Hundreds of people have died in insurgent unrest in the province since 2004, when rebels began demanding political autonomy and a greater share of profits from Baluchistan's natural resources.
In February John Solecki, a US citizen who headed of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Quetta, was kidnapped in the city. A Baluch rebel group claims to be holding him.