ISLAMABAD: The US has halted the launch of Predator drone strikes against al-Qaida and other militant leaders from an airbase in Pakistan after a dispute over a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistani citizens in Lahore in January, a US newspaper quoted Pakistani and US officials as saying.
The Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan has been one of the facilities that Pakistan provided to the US for its counter-terrorism operations in the region. Under a secret arrangement, Islamabad had allowed the US to use the Shamsi airbase for its covert drone operations inside Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The US has been using the place for more than seven years to launch Predator and Reaper drone strikes against al-Qaida and Taliban hideouts. The CIA presence at Shamsi was detected in 2004, when the first drone strikes were launched from the base. Google Earth images showed Predator drones parked on the runway at the base.
In recent days, Pakistan claimed that it had asked the US to close its operations from Shamsi following the secret commando raid in Abbottabad in May in which al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that the US stopped drone strikes from Shamsi in April after a diplomatic row over a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistani nationals in Lahore, weeks before the raid on bin Laden’s safe heaven.
“US personnel and Predator drones remain at the facility, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, with security provided by the Pakistani military,” officials told the Post, adding that the US drone strikes inside Pakistan in the past three months have been launched from an airbase in Afghanistan. The latest drone strike was on June 20 in Pakistan’s Kurram Agency.
Although Pakistan had tacitly allowed the US to launch drone strikes, the country’s civilian leadership always condemned such attacks to avoid public wrath.
According to revelations by WikiLeaks, Pakistani leaders told the US to continue its strikes in the tribal areas against al-Qaida and Taliban and assured them that they will handle the situation in the country by condemning and protesting the lethal attacks.
In another version of the story, Pakistan’s civilian officials recently said that they closed the Shamsi base in retaliation for an American reduction in coalition support funds, a multibillion-dollar subsidy for Pakistani military operations.
Pakistan’s defence minister Ahmed Mukhtar said on Wednesday “the US had been told to stop launching strikes from Shamsi”. The US personnel had already started to shift equipment from the base, he added.
The US officials, however, rejected the claim and said: “This is news to us. American operations against terrorists in Pakistan are continuing.”
Pakistan’s senior air force official told the country’s legislators in a briefing after bin Laden’s killing that Shamsi Airbase was built by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The area was sold to them by the government in late 1990′s. The Arab Sheikhs use the base for facilitating their trips of hunting falcons.