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Officials: US drone strike kills Taliban commander in Pakistan

S.K Khan / AFP - Getty Images, file

Mullah Nazir, center, is seen at a press conference in Wana, Pakistan, in 2007. The Associated Press reported that at least 5,000 people attended Nazir's funeral after he was killed by a U.S. drone strike.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A U.S. drone strike killed a Taliban commander and at least seven other people in northwest Pakistan, security officials told NBC News on Thursday.

Maulvi Nazir, who is also known as Mullah Nazir, was killed on Wednesday night when missiles struck a mud-built complex in Angoor Adda near the Afghan border, Pakistani officials said.

His deputy, Ratta Khan, was also killed, sources told Reuters. Four other people were injured.

Reports of Nazir's death came weeks after he was wounded in a bomb attack believed to have been launched by Taliban rivals.

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According to The Associated Press, Nazir's death could prove to be a contentious issue between Washington and Islamabad, which is believed to have struck a nonaggression pact with Nazir ahead of the Pakistani military's 2009 operation against militants in South Waziristan.

Nazir, 46, favored attacking American forces in Afghanistan rather than Pakistani soldiers in Pakistan, a position 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.

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Pakistan's military viewed Nazir and militant chiefs like him as key to keeping the peace internally because they do not attack Pakistani targets.

The military has a large base in Wana, where Nazir and his men were based. Residents said the main market in Wana shut down on Thursday to mark Nazir's death.

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Nazir was wounded there 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 bombing.

Residents in both Angoor Adda and Wana, the biggest town in South Waziristan, said they heard announcements on mosque loudspeakers announcing Nazir's death. One resident, Ajaz Khan, told The Associated Press by telephone that 5,000 to 10,000 people attended the funeral of Nazir and six other people held in Angoor Adda.

“He was our hero”, local tribesman Janat Gul Wazir told NBC News. “He had expelled all the foreign militants from our villages.” 

Nazir outraged many Pakistanis in June when he announced that he would not allow any polio vaccinations in territory under his control until the U.S. stops drone attacks in the region. Pakistan is one of three countries where polio is still endemic. Nine workers helping in anti-polio vaccination campaigns were killed last month by militant gunmen.

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The former chief of intelligence in northwest Pakistan, retired brigadier Asad Munir, said Nazir's killing will complicate the fight against militants in the tribal region, and could prompt Nazir's group to carry out retaliatory attacks against the Pakistani army in South Waziristan.

It will also raise questions among military commanders here who would like the U.S. to use its firepower against the Pakistani Taliban, which attacks domestic targets, and not against militants like Nazir who aren't seen as posing as much of a threat to the Pakistani state, Munir told The Associated Press.

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Pakistan's army, an uneasy ally of the United States, has clawed back territory from the Taliban since launching a military offensive in 2009.

But senior U.S. officials have frequently said that some elements within Pakistan's security services retain ties to some Taliban commanders.

Intensified U.S. drone strikes have killed many senior Taliban leaders, including Mehsud's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in 2009.

Drone strikes have dramatically increased since President Barack Obama took office. There were only five drone strikes in 2007. The number of strikes peaked at 117 in 2010 but fell to 46 last year.

The program has killed a number of top militant commanders over the past year, including al-Qaida's then-No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who died in a drone strike in June on the Pakistani village of Khassu Khel in North Waziristan.

Some Pakistanis say the drone strikes are an infringement of their national sovereignty and have called for them to stop.

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Others, including some residents of the tribal areas, say they are killing Taliban commanders who have terrorized the local population.

The continuing insecurity is likely to 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 gets to hand power to another.

NBC News' Waj Khan and Mushtaq Yusafzai, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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