Pakistan protests over U.S. missile strikes

ISLAMABAD, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Pakistan summoned U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson on Thursday to lodge a protest over missile strikes launched by drone aircraft against militant targets in Pakistan, a Pakistani foreign ministry official said.

The protest came a day after a suspected U.S. missile strike on Pakistani soil killed five militants, possibly including an Arab al Qaeda operative.

There have been at least 20 missile strikes in the last three months, reflecting U.S. impatience over fighters from Pakistan fueling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and fears that al Qaeda operatives hiding in northwest Pakistan could be planning attacks in the West.

Pakistan says the missile strikes violate its sovereignty, make it harder to justify the alliance with the United States in a country rife with anti-American sentiment, and undermine efforts to win public support for the fight against militancy.

Wednesday's attack on Bannu district was unusual in that it took place deeper in Pakistani territory, in an area outside the semi-autonomous tribal lands bordering Afghanistan where most other attacks have focused.

"The American ambassador has been called to the Foreign Office to lodge a protest over the missile attack in Bannu," a Foreign Ministry official told Reuters.

An embassy spokeswoman confirmed the ambassador had been summoned and said any message from the Pakistani government would be conveyed to Washington, without elaborating further.

Speaking in the National Assembly, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called the missile attacks "intolerable" and voiced hope President-elect Barack Obama's administration would exercise more restraint.

"These kinds of acts are counter-productive ... it adds to our problems," Gilani said, adding he was sure when "Obama's government is formed, these attacks will be controlled".

Addressing NATO's military committee in Brussels on Wednesday Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani also urged a halt to the use of unmanned "combat aerial vehicles within Pakistani territory".

Kayani met NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and held meetings with Admiral Michael Mullen, U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and a French defence chief.

The restatement of opposition to the air strikes followed hard on the heels of a foreign ministry denial Pakistan had a secret agreement with Washington to publicly protest the attacks, while privately acquiescing.

Missile-armed pilotless drones are primarily used by U.S. forces in the region. The United States seldom confirms drone attacks. Pakistan does not have any combat drones.

The Arab killed in the attack in Bannu was identified by a Pakistani intelligence official as Abdullah Azam al-Saudi. Bannu district in North West Frontier Province lies at the gateway to North Waziristan, a hotbed of Taliban and al Qaeda support.

The official, based in in neighbouring Dera Ismail Khan district, described al-Saudi as a coordinator between al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.

The official requested anonymity due to the subject's sensitivity and there was no other corroboration of al-Saudi's death.

Taliban fighters cordoned off the area around the destroyed house, but photographers took pictures of young boys holding pieces of the missile that destroyed it.


While the row over missile strikes simmered, NATO's spokesman in Kabul, Brigadier General Richard Blanchette said coordination with Pakistan has been improving.

Pakistani forces are battling Islamist fighters in other parts of northwest Pakistan, notably Bajaur, a region at the other end of the tribal belt from Waziristan, and Swat valley.

Though independent casualty estimates are unavailable, the number of people killed in the fighting runs well over a thousand in the last four months alone.

Western forces in Afghanistan have put pressure on the border with Bajaur in an operation dubbed "Lionheart", to create "cut-off positions" to bottle up the insurgents and attack them, Blanchette said. (Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony, Aftab Borka and robert Birsel in Kabul; Editing by Jerry Norton)