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U.S. drones tracked militants in Pakistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington has given Pakistan data on militants in the Afghanistan border area gathered by surveillance drones in Pakistani airspace under an agreement with Islamabad, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Confirming the existence of the program, which started in mid-March, U.S. military officials said it allowed the Pakistani military to request missions over specific areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Under the agreement, Pakistan had requested a handful of missions over specific areas, the last of which was in mid-April, the officials said.

“I wouldn’t call it deep penetration into Pakistan. Flights were limited to the areas they had requested information on,” said one military official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Islamabad has publicly complained of missile attacks by CIA drones on al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the border areas while pressing Washington to provide it with such vehicles to allow it to conduct its own anti-militant operations.

The United States conceived the missions as a way to extend surveillance of safe havens from which the militants threaten U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The militants have been extending their threat to government control in Pakistan.

U.S. officials said they did not know why Pakistan’s military had made no recent requests for drone surveillance missions, which had provided video and still images.

“We don’t do any of this without their requests to assist and support them in their operations,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“They haven’t asked for any additional assistance along those lines over about the last 30 days,” he said while testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the 2010 defence budget.

U.S. defence officials disputed a Los Angeles Times report that said Pakistan had exercised joint control over U.S. surveillance drones within its airspace.

Mullen’s public comments prompted Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate panel, to criticise Islamabad for publicly condemning CIA missile strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

“I wish they’d tell their public about their support of our operations instead of attacking us for them, because that is one of the things that just creates propaganda fodder for the very people who are out to destroy us and them,” Levin said.

U.S. officials say that CIA missile strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistan’s political leaders to decry the attacks in public.

Editing by David Storey