US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made it clear on Wednesday that Washington intends to continue using drones to target militants inside Pakistani territory, and dismissed claims made by Islamabad that such cross-border strikes violated Pakistan's sovereignty.
"We have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves. This is about our sovereignty as well," Panetta said, noting that the al-Qaeda leaders who orchestrated the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States were based in Pakistan's northwestern tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
Panetta argued that the US drone strikes also benefited Pakistan, which has witnessed numerous attacks by al-Qaeda and its allied groups in recent years. Acknowledging that US-Pakistan relations were "complicated" for both nations, the Pentagon chief stressed that "it is one that we must continue to work to improve."
Panetta, whose remarks came during a visit to India, said New Delhi and Washington need to "continue to engage Pakistan, overcoming our respective - and often deep - differences with Pakistan to make all of South Asia peaceful and prosperous". Incidentally, the United States wants India to play a greater role in stabilizing Afghanistan after the pullout of NATO troops by 2014 end.
A day earlier, White House confirmed the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, Al-Qaeda's second-in-command, without disclosing where, when and how he was killed. White House spokesman Jay Carney told a news briefing on Tuesday that al-Libi's death was "part of the degradation taking place in core al Qaeda in the last several years."
Nevertheless, unnamed US officials were quoted as saying by the media that al-Libi was killed in a US drone attack on a militant compound in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region. Fifteen people were reportedly killed in Monday's drone strike, which was at least the eighth of such strikes carried out by US unmanned aircraft inside Pakistan in the last two weeks.
Although Pakistan is yet to confirm al-Libi's death in the drone strike, its foreign ministry summoned acting US ambassador Richard Hoagland in Islamabad on Tuesday to "officially convey the government's serious concern regarding drone attacks in Pakistani territory."
US drone strikes inside Pakistan remains a very sensitive issue in the South Asian country. The Pakistani government has often protested strongly against such cross-border missile attacks in the past, stressing that such strikes violate its sovereignty. The US military never comments on individual drone strikes.
Nevertheless, US President Barack Obama recently admitted that the United States carries out regular drone strikes on militant targets in Pakistan's tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, stressing that such strikes allowed the US military to hit militant targets inside Pakistan without engaging in more "intrusive military action."
There has been a notable increase in alleged US drone strikes in Pakistan ever since Obama assumed office in January 2009. Although such strikes dropped in 2011 after the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike near the Afghan border in November, they have since resumed despite strong objections from Islamabad.
Pakistan responded to the deadly NATO air raid in November by shutting down NATO supply routes passing through its territory. Islamabad also called for an immediate end to US drone strikes on militant targets in Pakistan, insisting that those attacks were counter-productive as they end up killing civilians along with the targeted militants. Currently, the US and NATO are making serious attempts to persuade Pakistan to lift its blockade.
by RTT Staff Writer
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