Pakistan ends U.S. use of base for drone attacks: report

SINGAPORE Wed Jun 29, 2011 11:17pm EDT

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Pakistan has stopped the United States from using an air base in the southwest of the country to launch drone strikes against militant groups, the defense minister was quoted as saying, as ties remain strained between the two countries.

Pakistan has long publicly opposed the missile attacks as a violation of its sovereignty, but has in private given support including intelligence to help target members of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the northwest region along the Afghan border.

The Financial Times quoted Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar as saying that Pakistan had ended U.S. drone flights out of Shamsi base in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, long reported to have been used for the covert war against militants.

"No U.S. flights are taking place from Shamsi any longer. If there have to be flights from the base, it will only be Pakistani flights," Mukhtar told the newspaper.

Ties between the countries, strained since the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA agent in January, suffered a further setback after U.S. SEALs killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a secret raid last month that Pakistani officials said further breached its sovereignty.

Pakistan's army has drastically cut down the number of U.S. troops allowed in the country and set clear limits on intelligence sharing with the United States, reflecting its anger over what it sees as continuing U.S. interference in its affairs.

Washington had been asked to remove all its infrastructure from the Shamsi air base, the Financial Times cited an unidentified Pakistan official as saying. The official, though, said, no drone flights had taken off from the base since 2009.

Since U.S. President Barack Obama took office, drone strikes have been stepped up, focused on the Waziristan region in northwest Pakistan, a hub for militants from around the world.

These attacks have further intensified since bin Laden's killing which reinforced suspicion in the United States that elements of Pakistan's security establishment may have helped hide him.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani)

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