Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistan's army chief strongly condemned a U.S. drone missile strike that killed at least 40 people in a volatile tribal region along the Afghan border Thursday, asserting that the dead included innocent tribal elders who had been holding a meeting.
If Gen. Ashfaq Kayani's accusation is valid, it could undermine Pakistani cooperation on Washington's drone campaign against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the largely lawless tribal badlands in the country's northwest. The Obama administration relies heavily on drone missile strikes to hamper Al Qaeda and its militant allies' ability to plan terrorist attacks and train recruits.
The drone strike occurred in the Datta Khel region of North Waziristan, a tribal district that has been used as a base for operations by militant groups including Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, Punjabi extremist organizations and the Haqqani network, a wing of the Afghan Taliban regarded by the U.S. as one of the most dangerous threats to coalition forces battling insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan.
The target appeared to be a compound operated by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a North Waziristan Taliban leader who has struck peace agreements with Pakistan but has also provided safe haven to militants with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Four missiles were fired by a U.S. Predator drone flying overhead, striking a building with about 50 people inside, local officials said.
Earlier Thursday, Western news agencies quoted Pakistani intelligence sources as saying those killed were militants. However, by late evening, Pakistani authorities were contending that the victims included Waziristan tribespeople holding a meeting. Residents of the Datta Khel area said tribal elders had gathered at the building to discuss a dispute between local tribesmen over the ownership of an area mine.
"A jirga was in progress when the drone fired four missiles, turning the event into a bloodbath," said a North Waziristan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a statement, Kayani called it "highly regrettable that a jirga of peaceful citizens, including elders of the area, was carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life.... Such acts of violence take away from our objective of elimination of terrorism."
It remained unclear whether any of the dead were Taliban militants.
Kayani's assertion that innocent civilians were killed came nine days after a Pakistani general leading troops in North Waziristan, Maj. Gen. Ghayur Mehmood, was quoted in local media as saying that American drone attacks are for the most part accurate in targeting militants and their sympathizers. "Yes, there are a few civilian casualties in such precision strikes, but a majority of those eliminated are terrorists, including foreign terrorist elements," Mehmood told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn.
In this case, however, Pakistani authorities uniformly denounced the strike as a reckless attack on civilians. Kayani's condemnation was accompanied by a strong rebuke from Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who said "such irrational behavior negatively impacts the efforts to separate the militants from peaceful and patriotic tribesmen."
The U.S., which rarely discusses its covert program of drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, denied that civilians were targeted in the attack in Datta Khel. "This action was directed against a number of brutal terrorists, not a county fair," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Washington has dramatically stepped up its reliance on drone missile strikes in Pakistan in recent years. Since early 2010, most of those attacks have targeted North Waziristan. Of the 117 drone strikes on Pakistani territory last year, all but 13 occurred in North Waziristan, according to the Long War Journal, a website that compiles drone strike data. This year, 16 of 19 drone attacks have taken place in North Waziristan.
Many of the attacks have been directed at militants and commanders belonging to the Haqqani network. The U.S. has repeatedly urged the Pakistani military to launch an all-out offensive against Haqqani network fighters, but Pakistan, which has ties with Haqqani leaders that date to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, has steadfastly refused.
Publicly, Pakistani officials have consistently condemned U.S. reliance on drone strikes as a violation of the country's sovereignty. However, in an Aug. 23, 2008, diplomatic cable disclosed by the WikiLeaks website, Gilani revealed Pakistan's acceptance of the drone campaign. In a meeting with then-Ambassador Anne Patterson and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Gilani said, "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the [parliament] and then ignore it."
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.