ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A suspected U.S. pilotless drone has crashed in the northwestern Pakistani region of South Waziristan after a spate of missile attacks by unmanned U.S. aircraft in Pakistan strained ties between the allies.
Pakistan has said U.S. missile attacks and one U.S. ground assault are a violation of its sovereignty and the army has vowed to defend Pakistani territory.
President Asif Ali Zardari met U.S. President George W. Bush in New York on Tuesday and spoke strongly about protecting Pakistani sovereignty, Bush said.
Pakistani news channels said early on Wednesday a U.S.-operated drone had come down near the border village of Angor Adda, where U.S. commandos launched a raid on September 3.
The Pakistani military confirmed that a pilotless aircraft had come down but did not identify it as American. Other countries with forces in Afghanistan have not been known to operate drones over Pakistani territory.
“A surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle while flying over Pak-Afghan border yesterday night crash landed, on this side of the border ... apparently due to malfunctioning,” the army said in a statement.
“The wreckage ... has been recovered.”
American officials earlier denied that the United States had lost any drones: “No such thing occurred,” said one.
Bush did not speak about the recent U.S. attacks into Pakistan but he said Zardari had made a strong point about Pakistan’s sovereignty.
“Your words have been very strong about Pakistan’s sovereign right and sovereign duty to protect your country, and the United States wants to help,” Bush said before their talks.
Pakistan’s support is regarded as crucial both to the success of Western forces trying to stabilize Afghanistan and in the fight against al Qaeda.
But U.S. impatience has grown over what it sees as Pakistan’s failure to eliminate the militant threat on its side of the Afghan border.
Zardari is close to the United States and has stressed the need to root out terrorism, but many Pakistanis oppose the U.S.-led campaign against militancy.
Zardari said this week that cross-border U.S. attacks reinforced the belief that the campaign was a U.S. war and complicated his effort to appease critics.
Pakistan’s stance was set out clearly by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani at a news conference in Islamabad.
“We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by anyone in the name of combating terrorism,” Gilani said. Residents and Pakistani security officials have reported troops firing on U.S. helicopters in recent days, forcing them to turn back to Afghanistan. U.S. officials have dismissed the reports and said no helicopters had taken fire.
Militants and ethnic Pashtun tribesmen regularly fire at drones with rifles, residents on the border say, but they have not been known to have brought one down.
According to earlier news reports, some tribesmen had claimed to have shot down the drone late on Tuesday but a security force officer said the aircraft had not been hit by ground fire.
“The body of the plane is intact and there are no bullet holes,” said the officer, who declined to be identified.
He said it was a small U.S. drone.
“It’s American. It’s theirs, no one else flies drones there,” the security force officer said.
An intelligence official said aircraft was about three feet (1 meter) long with a wingspan of about 5 feet.
Residents of North Waziristan said people opened fire on a drone flying over the town of Mir Ali, a known militant sanctuary, on Wednesday but missed. The drone flew off.
Additional reporting by Hafiz Wazir, Saad Khan and Augustine Anthony; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Paul Tait