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Pakistan army practices shooting drone aircraft

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani soldiers practiced shooting at pilotless “drone” aircraft Friday, the military said a day after the government lodged a protest with the U.S. ambassador over drone missile strikes in Pakistani territory.

Anti-aircraft guns and short-range surface-to-air missiles were used during the exercise conducted at a desert range near the city of Muzaffargarh in the central Pubjab province.

“The elements of Army Air Defense demonstrated their shooting skills by targeting the drones flying at different altitudes,” the military said in a statement.

Air defense commander Lieutenant-General Ashraf Saleem praised the “precision and agility” of the gunners.

Pakistan is bristling over a series of missile strikes by U.S. drones targeting al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the lawless tribal regions along the Afghan border in recent weeks.

The U.S. forces have carried out more than 20 such drone attacks in the last three months, reflecting U.S. impatience over militants from Pakistan fuelling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and fears that al Qaeda fighters in northwest Pakistan could plan attacks in the West.

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A U.S. commando raid on September 3 led to a diplomatic storm, and there has not been any subsequent incursion by ground troops.

But the controversy over the drones flared again after the latest missile strike Wednesday hit a target in Bannu district in North West Frontier Province, deeper inside Pakistani territory and south of the semi-autonomous Waziristan tribal region that has borne the brunt of the attacks.

Protesting the strike in Bannu during a session of the National Assembly, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani voiced hope that the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama would exercise more restraint.

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.

Reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Paul Tait

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