ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Just one day after a CIA contractor was absolved by a Pakistani court of a double murder charge, Pakistan and U.S. relations were plunged into a new crisis Thursday over a CIA-directed drone missile strike that Pakistan said killed at least 36 civilians.
Pakistan's military and civilian leadership condemned the strike in unusually harsh language, demanding compensation for the victims and an apology.
Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani called the attack a "violation of human rights" and said the dead were peaceful tribal leaders attending a meeting, not Islamic extremists.
"It is highly regrettable that a jirga (meeting) of peaceful citizens, including elders of the area, was carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life," he said.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called the strike "irrational behavior" and said it would "negatively impact the efforts to separate the militants from peaceful and patriotic tribesmen" and hit "very negatively on our joint efforts to eliminate the menace of terrorism in this region."
There was no comment from the U.S., which doesn't publicly acknowledge the drone program.
The latest uproar came after Wednesday's release of Raymond Davis, a contract CIA security officer who'd been jailed for nearly two months on double murder charges. He was acquitted after the families of the dead men received a "blood money" payment of more than $1 million and formally pardoned him.
Thursday's missile attack was carried out in North Waziristan, the region on the border with Afghanistan that's the focus of the drone campaign and the base of a menacing collection of militant groups, including al Qaida and the Haqqani network, a ferocious ally of the Afghan Taliban.
The number of dead, put at 40 in some reports, is unusual for any drone attack. Given the dangers from the ever-present U.S. drone aircraft hovering above, militants would be reluctant to meet in such large numbers. The strike happened in the Datta Khel district, a militant hotbed.
Early reports of the missile strike, citing unnamed Pakistani intelligence sources, said the dead were followers of a powerful Pakistani Taliban leader, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, including one of his commanders, Sharabat Khan. Those reports said the gathering had been called to discuss sending additional fighters into Afghanistan.
But those reports were quickly disavowed as the government swung into full repudiation of the strike.
The use of unmanned drones allows the U.S. to target militants without sending American troops into Pakistan. Pakistan officially protests the program, but in reality often cooperates with gathering intelligence for the strikes.
Washington has put intense pressure on Pakistan to launch a military operation to clear North Waziristan of extremists, but so far Islamabad has resisted, saying its forces are already stretched thin fighting militants elsewhere. That makes the drone weapon vital for keep the extremists in North Waziristan under pressure.
Pakistan was close to the Haqqani network in the past, ties that many suspect continue to exist. The group's haven in North Waziristan is crucial.
The drone campaign has intensified under the Obama administration. There were 118 strikes last year, up from 33 in 2008, according to a tally kept by the New America Foundation, an independent research organization based in Washington. So far this year, there have been 20 strikes, 17 of which were in North Waziristan.
While the intelligence community generally believes that the drones usually hit the right target, public opinion in Pakistan thinks that hundreds of civilians have been killed. This month, in a unique admission on the issue, a Pakistani general stated that "a few civilian casualties in such precision strikes, but a majority of those eliminated are terrorists."
Late last year, a group of the families of supposed civilian casualties of the drones launched a lawsuit against the CIA, a move that forced the chief of the spy agency's Islamabad station, who was named in the document, to flee the country.
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