Islamabad: Pakistan`s Prime Minister struck a moderate tone on Monday amid criticism of the US for carrying out its first drone strike in the country since Parliament demanded that Washington end the attacks two weeks ago.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani`s comments could indicate the government does not want the drone issue to torpedo attempts to patch up ties with the US.
The strikes have complicated US attempts to get Pakistan to reopen supply lines for NATO troops in Afghanistan that were closed in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops.
For Pakistan, reconciliation could mean the freeing up of over USD 1 billion in US military aid that has been frozen.
Pakistan`s Parliament approved new guidelines for the country`s relationship with the US in mid-April. Washington had hoped that Parliament`s decision could pave the way to reopen the supply lines. But the legislature`s demand that drone strikes end threw a wrench in the process because US officials have indicated they have no intention of stopping the covert CIA program.
When asked about the most recent strike, which killed three suspected Islamist militants on Sunday, Gilani pointed out that the resolution passed by Parliament also stipulated that foreign fighters must be expelled from the country and Pakistani soil should not be used to attack other countries.
"So, when we plan a strategy (with the US), all these aspects would be discussed," said Gilani.
The US has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan target Taliban and al Qaeda militants who use its territory to launch cross-border attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military has refused, claiming its forces are stretched too thin by operations against home-grown militants battling the government. However, many analysts believe Pakistan is reluctant to target militants with whom it has historical ties because they could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
The drone issue is complicated by the fact that some elements of the Pakistani government, including the military, have helped the US carry out strikes in the past. That cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated, but many analysts believe some in the government still support the program at some level.
Even those Pakistani officials believed to support the attacks often protest them in public because they are so unpopular in the country. Many Pakistanis believe they most kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the US and independent research.
The latest attack on Sunday killed three suspected militants sheltering in an abandoned school in the North Waziristan tribal area along the Afghan border, said Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.
Pakistan`s Foreign Ministry issued a statement early Monday saying the strikes "are in total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations”.
"The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that drone attacks are violative of its territorial integrity and sovereignty," it said.
It`s not the first time the US has ignored Pakistan`s Parliament, which has called since 2008 for the drone strikes to end.
A Pakistani intelligence official said the most recent strike seemed to be a message from the US.
"It`s a message that things are going to continue as usual irrespective of what we say," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
President Barack Obama significantly ramped up strikes in Pakistan when he took office in 2009, and while the US has said little publicly about the attacks, American officials have argued in private that they are critical to targeting Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who threaten the West.
Drones are not the only issue complicating Pakistan`s decision to reopen the NATO supply lines.
The country`s Parliament has also demanded that the US provide an "unconditional apology" for the deaths of the Pakistani troops in November.
The US has expressed regret, but has declined to apologise — a decision that appears to be driven by domestic political considerations. The US has said its troops fired in self-defence — a claim disputed by Pakistan — and the White House could be concerned about Republican criticism if it apologises.