Demonstrators in Pakistan express anger over an American drone missile… (Farooq Naeem / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistan on Friday pulled out of upcoming talks with the U.S. on the war in Afghanistan, a move meant to convey Islamabad's anger over an American drone missile strike that it says killed a gathering of civilians along the Afghan border.
The U.S. and Pakistan disagree on who was killed in the strike Thursday in North Waziristan, a volatile tribal region that serves as a stronghold for an array of militant groups, including Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, a wing of the Afghan Taliban that regularly attacks U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The U.S. said it struck a compound where militants were meeting. But Pakistani authorities insisted that among the 45 reported dead were tribal elders and other civilians meeting to discuss an ownership dispute over a mine.
The dispute comes at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-Pakistan relations, when Pakistanis are seething over the release Wednesday of a CIA contractor charged with murdering two motorcyclists in the eastern city of Lahore in late January.
At small protests organized by Islamist parties in Islamabad, Lahore and other cities, demonstrators angrily denounced President Asif Ali Zardari's government for allowing Raymond Davis to go free. His release was made possible by a "blood money" agreement sanctioned by Pakistani law and negotiated by Islamabad and Washington that allows the accused to pay financial compensation to the victims' families in exchange for their forgiveness.
In announcing that Pakistan would not take part in talks with Afghanistan and the U.S. scheduled for Brussels on March 26, Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir told U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter that such drone strikes "constituted a flagrant violation of humanitarian norms and law," according to a statement by the Foreign Ministry.
Drone strikes are a crucial component in Washington's strategy against Islamic militant groups hiding out in Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal areas, and experts say they have been successful in degrading Al Qaeda and the Taliban's ability to launch attacks.
Pakistan has maintained a policy of publicly condemning the drone strikes while tacitly allowing them to take place. In some instances, the strikes are carried out with the help of Pakistani intelligence-gathering.