ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan has renewed calls for an end to U.S. drone aircraft strikes, an issue that could strain ties as the CIA hunts down Muslim militants after one of the deadliest attacks in its history in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan officially objects to the operations against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban militants along its border with Afghanistan, saying they violate its sovereignty.
And Islamabad has pushed Washington to provide it with the drones to allow it to carry out its own attacks on Taliban insurgents, a move that could ease widespread anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani reiterated Pakistan’s concerns over the drone strikes in talks with a delegation of visiting U.S. senators headed by John McCain.
“He reiterated his government’s disappointment over the continuing drone attacks and persisting reluctance of the U.S. to share drone technology with Pakistan to enable it to take on the terror centers in its border areas itself,” said Pakistan’s official APP news agency.
The senators met Gilani on Friday and also held talks with President Asif Ali Zardari and army chief Ashfaq Kiyani after visiting Afghanistan, where U.S. and other Western troops face a raging Afghan Taliban insurgency.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, McCain defended the drone strikes, saying they are “one of many tools that we must use to try to defeat a very determined and terrible enemy”.
The United States has stepped up its attacks with the pilotless drone aircraft attacks in Pakistan since a double agent blew himself up at a U.S. base in Afghanistan on December 30, killing seven CIA agents.
U.S. officials say the strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to criticizes them in public. Pakistan denies any such agreement.
Pakistan has captured hundreds of al Qaeda militants and handed many of them over to the United States, including some of the most wanted men in the U.S. war on terror.
Pakistan is likely to come under more intense American pressure to help fight militant groups after the suicide bombing that killed the CIA agents.
Pakistan is struggling against homegrown Taliban insurgents and is reluctant to go after some groups in border enclaves it sees as assets in Afghanistan that Washington wants eliminated.
Al Qaeda’s Afghan wing claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing, saying it was revenge for the deaths of militant leaders, including Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone attack.
Pakistan and the United States are long-time allies. But the drone attacks and other issues have caused friction.
Gilani told the senators tighter security measures against Pakistanis in U.S. airports following a botched bombing attempt on an American airliner could hurt relations.
Travelers from Nigeria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and nine other countries face full-body pat downs before boarding airliners under new security screening procedures targeting foreign passengers in the United States.
In his talks with the senators, Gilani expressed his reservations about the move, said a statement from his office cited by APP.
“Gilani said such policies cause consternation and anxiety among the people of Pakistan and said their continuity could negatively impact the bilateral ties,” said APP, adding that Gilani said Pakistan should be removed from the list.
The U.S. embassy has accused Pakistan of taking provocative action and making false allegations against U.S. personnel. U.S. officials say Pakistan is also stalling their visa applications. (Editing by Alex Richardson)