Addis Ababa: Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday stoutly defended US anti-terrorism policies, including the controversial CIA-operated drone attacks, saying it has helped America to successfully root out al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
Responding to questions from students at a town hall meeting during his visit to Ethiopia about the US drone programme, Kerry vigorously defended the justice of kill strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles just days after President Barack Obama`s major policy speech, narrowing the scope of the fight against terrorism.
"The only people we fire at are confirmed terror targets, at the highest level. We don`t just fire a drone at somebody we think is a terrorist," Kerry said, adding that strikes are ruled out if there could be collateral damage.
He went on to describe the drone programme as one of the "most accountable," unlike terrorist attacks, which are indiscriminate.
"Let me very clear... First of all there have been very few drone strikes in this last year. Why? Because we have been so successful in rooting out Al-Qaeda in Pakistan," he told students at the University of Addis Ababa.
"Secondly the only people that we fire on are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest levels after a great deal of vetting," he was quoted as saying.
Critics contend that, despite Obama`s claims of accuracy, the CIA-operated drones have killed hundreds of innocent civilians, along with as many as 3,000 militants, most of them low-level fighters, in Pakistan and Yemen.
Since 2009, when Obama became president, the United States has carried out more than 360 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to data compiled by the Long War Journal Web site.
The CIA has accounted for the vast majority of those, including all 293 in Pakistan, where only the agency flies armed drones.
The drone campaign in Pakistan began under President George W. Bush and escalated after Obama took office.
According to Obama, drone strikes are effective. "Dozens of highly skilled al-Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, US transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives," Obama said, last week.
"Moreover, America`s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorised the use of force. Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organisation that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war, a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defence," Obama said in his speech.
However, Pakistan`s Prime Minister-designate Nawaz Sharif has said that the CIA`s controversial drone attacks must end as it posed a "challenge" to the country`s national sovereignty.