Two U.S. missile strikes killed six reputed Afghan Taliban fighters in a Pakistani tribal region Wednesday, drawing sharp condemnation from Pakistan's government just days after it asked Washington to limit such attacks.
The U.S. relies heavily on the covert, CIA-run missile program to kill al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in Pakistan's northwest _ a program Pakistan publicly denounces but has secretly helped. The Obama administration said Tuesday it is negotiating a possible reduction in U.S. intelligence operatives and special operations officers in Pakistan as the two countries try to mend relations badly strained by the detention of a CIA contractor for killing two Pakistanis.
On Wednesday, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry called drone attacks "a core irritant in the counter-terror campaign" and said it had lodged a "strong protest" with U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter over the new strikes. A U.S. Embassy spokesman confirmed the Foreign Ministry had called the ambassador.
The latest drone-fired strikes came minutes apart, hitting the South Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border, Pakistani intelligence officials said. They were the first missile attacks since a mid-March strike that Pakistan's army chief said killed dozens of peaceful tribesmen.
On Monday, Pakistan's spy chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, met with CIA head Leon Panetta in Washington amid lingering tensions over the January shooting deaths of two Pakistanis by CIA security contractor Raymond Davis.
Davis was freed on March 16 after nearly two months in detention. The U.S. insisted he acted in self-defense against robbers and that he had diplomatic immunity. He was freed after relatives of his victims agreed to accept financial compensation.
Afterward, U.S. officials said the Pakistanis had requested advance notice of missile strikes and fewer strikes overall. The U.S. is considering the request for more information but sees other demands as nonstarters, as American officials suspect factions in Pakistan's spy community support the Taliban. The U.S. tends to keep up drone strikes even when relations with Pakistan are more strained than usual.
"When bad guys are spotted doing bad things, that could lead to loss of life. The Pakistanis understand that they have to take action or we will," an American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the U.S. doesn't comment publicly on drone strikes.
Wednesday's strikes used a total of seven missiles to hit a vehicle and a motorcycle in the forested Bhangar area of South Waziristan, said two Pakistani intelligence officials, who are based in the northwest and rely on information from field agents and informants.
They said the dead were Afghan Taliban fighters who sneaked across the border. But the information is nearly impossible to verify independently _ the area is remote, dangerous and access to it is legally restricted.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official also criticized the strike, saying the timing was inappropriate coming so soon after the meeting in Washington. Like the other intelligence officials, he spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record to media.
The U.S. rarely discusses the missile program publicly, but American officials have in the past described it as successful in taking out top militants. Pakistanis generally hold a low opinion of the program, however, alleging numerous civilians are killed or maimed by the attacks. The government publicly insists the strikes gain militants more sympathy.
Most of the strikes land in the North Waziristan tribal area, home to several militant groups who focus on fighting Western troops in Afghanistan.
On March 17, a drone strike killed roughly three dozen people in North Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence officials initially described the dead as militants, but later said at least 24 civilians from tribes asking the Taliban to mediate a dispute also died.
Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, issued a rare public statement in which he condemned the attack. Pakistan also summoned the U.S. ambassador Munter to protest. A U.S. official denied innocent people had been targeted.
Earlier this week, Munter gave a speech in which he urged the two countries to move beyond the recent tensions.
Associated Press reporters Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Adam Goldman in Washington D.C. contributed to this report.