Islamabad: Pakistan`s Army chief strongly condemned a US drone attack that killed more than three dozen people on Thursday, saying the missiles struck a peaceful meeting of tribal elders near the Afghan border.
The accusation by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — which was denied by a US official — adds tension to a relationship already strained by the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor who was freed on Wednesday following a contentious deal to pay millions in "blood money" to the men`s families.
These conflicts make it that much harder for the US to achieve its main goal in Pakistan: convincing the government to target Taliban militants on its territory. They regularly stage cross-border attacks against foreign troops in Afghanistan.
"It is highly regrettable that a jirga (meeting) of peaceful citizens including elders of the area was carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life," said Kayani in a written statement. "In complete violation of human rights, such acts of violence take us away from our objective of elimination of terrorism."
Kayani`s condemnation conflicted with statements provided by Pakistani intelligence officials throughout the day saying the 38 people killed and seven wounded in the attack were militants meeting to discuss sending additional fighters into Afghanistan.
The officials said the militants were allied with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful Pakistani Taliban leader in the area, and even gave the name of a senior militant, Sharabat Khan, who was reportedly killed in the attack.
A US official familiar with the details of the strike also denied innocent people were targeted.
"There`s every indication that this was a group of terrorists, not a charity car wash in the Pakistani hinterlands," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was classified.
The compound was targeted by two pairs of missiles fired three minutes apart.
It was located in the Datta Khel area of the North Waziristan tribal region — the main sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters along the Afghan border, said the Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to reporters.
Most reporters are barred from visiting the tribal region, so it is difficult to verify who is killed in attacks.
The US has repeatedly pressed Kayani to launch an offensive against militants in North Waziristan, but he has refused, saying his soldiers are stretched too thin by operations in other parts of the tribal region.
Many officials suspect privately, however, that Pakistan doesn`t want to confront militants with whom it has historical ties and who could be useful allies in Afghanistan.
The US has responded by relying more heavily on drone attacks to kill militants in North Waziristan. The strikes are unpopular in Pakistan because many believe they violate the country`s sovereignty and kill innocent civilians.
Pakistani politicians often rail against the attacks, but its most powerful intelligence agency, controlled by the Army, is widely believed to cooperate with some of them. That hasn`t stopped the Army from calling the strikes counterproductive — a popular position in a country where anti-American sentiment is rampant.
Kayani said the Army has lodged a protest against Thursday`s strike "in the strongest possible terms”.
"It has been highlighted clearly that such aggression against people of Pakistan is unjustified and intolerable under any circumstances," he said.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir conveyed his condemnation of the attack to US Ambassador Cameron Munter.
"This is not only unacceptable but also a flagrant violation of all humanitarian rules and norms," the Foreign Ministry said in a written statement.
The US rarely acknowledges the covert CIA drone program in Pakistan, but officials have said privately that strikes have killed several key Taliban and al Qaeda commanders. They also say the number of civilians killed in the attacks is very low.
The United States began firing missiles at militant targets in Pakistan in 2004, but the pace of the attacks picked up dramatically in 2008. Last year, there were around 120 strikes, which are believed to be carried out by drone aircraft launched either from Afghanistan or from inside Pakistan. There have been around 20 so far this year — mostly in North Waziristan.
Thursday`s strikes came a day after Pakistan released Raymond Allen Davis, the CIA contractor who shot and killed two men on January 27 in the eastern city of Lahore, allegedly in self defence. He was freed after heirs of his victims were given USD 2.34 million in exchange for a pardon.
Davis` release has sparked small-scale protests in Pakistan`s major cities that many expect will intensify on Friday after noon prayers. Kayani`s claim of civilian casualties in the drone strikes could add to the anger against the US pulsating in the streets.
"We have criticised drone attacks before, and we will continue to raise our voice to condemn these attacks," said Masood Kausar, the governor of northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.