Pakistan has targeted Baitullah Mehsud and his commanders in recent months in various tribal regions.

Mehsud is accused of orchestrating the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister, and launching a string of suicide attacks across the country.

Missile strikes

The latest air raid destroyed the hideouts of Hakim Ullah, Mehsud's deputy, but it was unclear if he was present at the time, intelligence officials said.

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The raid came a day after a suspected US missile attack killed at least five alleged Taliban fighters, also in in North Waziristan, officials said.

Over the past year, the US has launched dozens of missile raids in Pakistan's northwest regions bordering Afghanistan.

The north and south Waziristan sections of the country's semi-autonomous tribal belt have been frequent targets because of the heavy Taliban and al-Qaeda presence there.

US officials rarely acknowledge or comment on the individual raids, but some have defended the tactic, saying it has killed several prominent al-Qaeda fighters.

The US is keen on ridding Pakistan of safe havens for Taliban fighters involved in attacks on American and Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Lashkars in action

In their fight against the Taliban, Pakistan's government has been encouraging villagers in the northwestern tribal regions to form local militias, known as lashkars.

These are armed groups made up of local volunteers who are resisting the Taliban. The groups are particularly active in the region of Dir.

In the last 24 hours alone, the lashkars have killed at least two suspected Taliban fighters.

In a recent clash in the Mohmand region, along the Afghanistan border, lashkars killed at least 23 Taliban fighters, according to local government officials.

At least four tribal volunteers were reported to have been wounded in the fighting.