Pakistan denies US bid to widen drone-strike zones

Pak privately tolerates strikes in militant strongholds near Afghan border.

Islamabad: Pakistan has rejected a US request to expand the areas where American missiles can target Taliban and al Qaeda operatives, a senior Pakistani intelligence official said on Saturday.

The US has sharply increased the attacks by remote-controlled drones in Pakistani territory, launching more than 100 this year. Most have hit North Waziristan, believed to be a hide-out of senior militants who plot attacks against NATO and US troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan privately tolerates the strikes in militant strongholds near the Afghan border as a "necessary evil" but cannot sanction widening them into more-populated areas, said the official with the Pakistani military Inter Service Intelligence agency, or ISI. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.

The missile attacks are rarely officially acknowledged by Washington, and Pakistan officially condemns them as a violation of its sovereignty that threatens to further turn the population against the army and central authorities. The program, which US officials say has killed hundreds of insurgents, has been condemned by critics who say it may constitute illegal assassinations.

The American drones now operate in designated "boxes" inside Pakistan`s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas located along the lawless, mountainous border with Afghanistan, the ISI official said. He confirmed that US officials had sought both to enlarge the current boxes and establish new ones outside the tribal zone where senior Taliban and al Qaeda operatives are suspected to be operating.

He would not specify which new areas the American side hoped to target, but an article in the Washington Post identified one as the area around Quetta city in southwestern Pakistan, which is believed to be where Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar operates.

The official said the Pakistani side denied the request because the risk of civilian casualties was too great. The missile strikes already inspire deep outrage among much of the Pakistani populace, he said, and the government cannot afford to inflame more resentment by expanding them into more populated areas.

Bureau Report