A suspected U.S. drone strike on an Islamic seminary in northwestern Pakistan killed a senior member of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network early on Thursday, Pakistani and Afghan sources said.
It was the first drone strike in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation since Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed on Nov. 1 in an attack which prompted a fierce power struggle within the fragmented insurgency.
Police officer Fareed Khan said the unmanned aircraft fired three rockets at the madrassa in the Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa just before sunrise.
A source with Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security intelligence agency said in Kabul the dead included Maulvi Ahmad Jan, an adviser to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of Taliban-linked Haqqani network.
A Pakistani intelligence source told Reuters separately that Sirajuddin Haqqani was spotted at the same seminary two days earlier.
Taliban sources also confirmed his death but the Haqqani network itself was not immediately available for comment.
The group is one of the main enemies of U.S.-led forces in neighbouring Afghanistan, frequently launching attacks on foreign troops from mountainous hideouts in Pakistan's lawless North Waziristan region.
But it has been under considerable strain this month since its chief financier, Nasiruddin Haqqani, was shot dead in Islamabad on Nov. 11. No one claimed responsibility for that shooting.
Washington has long called on Islamabad to crack down on the group. Nasiruddin's father was one an ally of the United States during the rebellion in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
Pakistan publicly opposes U.S. drone strikes, saying they kill too many civilians and violate its sovereignty, although in private officials admit the government broadly supports them.
Most drone strikes occur in the lawless North Waziristan region where Taliban insurgents are holed up, and are rare in densely populated places like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The attack took place a day after Pakistan's foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz was quoted as saying that the United States had promised not to conduct drone strikes while the government tries to engage the Taliban in peace talks.
The United States has not commented on Aziz's remarks.
The identities of the others killed on Thursday were not immediately clear. Militants often visit seminaries to consult their spiritual leaders as well as to recruit new fighters.