ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan summoned U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson on Thursday to protest over missile strikes launched by pilotless drone aircraft against militant targets in Pakistan.
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 strikes in the last three months, reflecting U.S. impatience over militants from Pakistan fueling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and fears that al Qaeda fighters in northwest Pakistan could plan attacks in the West.
Pakistan says the attacks violate its sovereignty, undermine efforts to win public support for the fight against militancy, and make it harder to justify the U.S. alliance.
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.
Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir lodged “a strong protest” over the “two missiles fired by U.S. drones on a residential compound in Bannu district,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Bashir “stressed that these attacks must be stopped.”
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 government would show 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.”
A diplomatic storm blew up in September after a U.S. commando raid, and there has been no incursion by ground troops since.
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 defense chief.
Earlier this week, the Foreign Ministry denied Pakistan had a secret agreement with Washington to publicly protest the attacks, while privately acquiescing.
Missile-armed 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 officer 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 officer, based in neighboring Dera Ismail Khan district, described al-Saudi as a coordinator between al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan.
The officer requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. 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.
The Pakistani Taliban, in a statement issued after a meeting of commanders in North Waziristan, threatened revenge attacks outside the tribal lands if missile attacks continued.
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.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s paramilitary forces said on Thursday that 24 al Qaeda-linked militants, including 11 foreigners, had been killed as the military used artillery and jet fighters in support of the ground troops.
The military says more than 1,500 militants have been killed in Bajaur since August while 73 soldiers have also died, though independent casualty estimates are unavailable.
Western forces in Afghanistan have launched “Operation Lionheart” to put pressure on the border with Bajaur, to bottle up insurgents where they can be attacked, Blanchette said.
Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony, Aftab Borka and Robert Birsel in Kabul; Editing by Jerry Norton