ISLAMABAD - Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has reiterated his country's demand for an end to U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan.
In an address at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington Tuesday, Sharif said he wants to see U.S.-Pakistan relations improve "but the issue of drones has become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship."
"The use of drones is not only a continual violation of our territorial integrity but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts at eliminating terrorism from our country," said Sharif.
White House Spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. strongly disagrees with claims that the drone strikes violate international law.
"U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective, and the United States does not take lethal strikes when we or our partners have the ability to capture individual terrorists."
The comments came as the Britain-based rights group Amnesty International issued a report harshly critical of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan.
In the document released Tuesday Amnesty International says that the United States “appears to have committed very serious” human rights violations with its drone program in Pakistan, some of which could even amount to war crimes. The rights group is now calling on U.S. authorities to end the secrecy surrounding the controversial program and bring to justice those responsible for civilian deaths in drone attacks.
Amnesty International officials describe the report as one of the most comprehensive studies to date of the U.S. drone program. The report reviewed all 45 known missile strikes by the pilotless planes in Pakistan’s militant-dominated North Waziristan tribal territory from January 2012 through August of this year.
Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International led the field research into nine of these drone strikes. He told VOA that the findings are unprecedented in many ways; unlike previous international studies, his team was able to physically travel and speak to people from drone strike areas.
“We have located exactly where two drone strikes happened, where the victims were standing, where the witnesses were standing. In one horrible case, the grandmother who has been killed in front of her grandchildren, in another case some laborers were killed and the rescuers who came to try to help victims were also killed. So, our question to the U.S. is how can you justify these killings?” asked Qadri.
Contrary to official claims that those killed were “terrorists,” Qadri claimed Amnesty International’s research has established that some of those targeted were not involved in fighting, posed no threat to anyone, and certainly were not an imminent threat to the United States.
For example, the report identifies a 68-year old grandmother killed in October last year as Mamana Bibi. She was picking vegetables in her family’s fields in the village of Ghundi Kala, in North Waziristan, when a drone strike killed her.
Amnesty International also released a video interview it conducted with Nabeela, a young granddaughter of the deceased woman, to substantiate its claims.
“There was an explosion. We were scared and I ran home. It was dark in front of our house. They brought me to the doctor in the village who gave me first aid. I was not scared before but now, when the drone is flying I am scared of it,” said Nabeela during the interview.
Qadri said Amnesty also established that in July 2012 multiple drone strikes on Zowi Sidgi, a remote village near the Afghan border, killed 18 laborers, including one boy, who were preparing to have their evening meal. Qadri said that people who came to assist the injured from the first strike were also killed in a follow-on drone attack.
“We are really concerned about the U.S. drone program because it claims it can use them anywhere in the world because it has a global war against al-Qaida and its allies… This is a secret program. In fact in our case we have found at least in some cases they clearly killed civilians and some of these cases might be war crimes. That really concerns us,” said Qadri.
U.S. authorities offer very little public information about the CIA-run drone operation in Pakistan. They insist that the missile strikes are carefully planned to avoid civilian casualties and have killed key al-Qaida operatives. They also said that the campaign has become an effective counter-terrorism weapon against militants operating in areas where U.S. troops cannot reach.
Amnesty has demanded the United States publicly disclose the legal basis for the drone strike program in Pakistan. It also urges U.S. authorities to investigate all suspected unlawful killings.
In addition to its calls on the U.S., Amnesty is also calling on Pakistan to publicly disclose information on all U.S. drone strikes that Pakistani authorities are aware of, including casualties and all assistance provided to victims.
Amnesty International claims that in addition to the threat of U.S. drone strikes, people in North Waziristan are frequently caught between attacks by armed militants and Pakistani security forces. The report noted that that the local population lives under constant fear of inescapable violence from all sides.
The first U.S. drone attack in Pakistan took place in 2004. In the years since, it was widely believed the operations were part of a secret agreement where Islamabad privately approved them but publicly condemned them.
However, Pakistani leaders say they are now strongly opposed to the drone strikes and condemn them as a violation of their country’s territorial integrity. They also insist the attacks are fueling militancy in Pakistan.
North Waziristan has long been considered a hub for al-Qaida terrorists and militants within the Haqqani network, who are blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan. The U.S. has long pressed the Pakistani military to move against the extremists in North Waziristan. However, it is widely perceived that state control has almost disappeared in the Waziristan territory.
Opponents of the drone strikes, like former Pakistani law minister Ahmer Bilal Soofi, insist that Islamabad cannot be held responsible for acts of violence carried out by individuals or outlawed groups present on its soil.
“Their acts cannot bind the state of Pakistan and you cannot assume responsibility on the state of Pakistan because they are doing something. They are a much more serious threat to Pakistan. They are on the soil of Pakistan, they have networking here, they have sleeper cells here, they have linkages here, and their ability to be destructive to Pakistan is far more than their ability to cross the Atlantic and get there and try and do something there,” said Soofi.
The United Nations is also investigating civilian deaths in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere.
U.N. Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson also called on the United States to disclose the number of civilians killed in drone attacks.
In preliminary findings released last week, Emmerson quoted Pakistani officials as saying drone attacks have killed at least 400 civilians. However, Emmerson also said he is still in the process of confirming reports of civilian deaths in drone strikes with the states involved.