By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States plans to keep using an airstrip inside Pakistan for non-lethal drone flights against militants near the Afghanistan border despite demands from some Pakistani officials that Washington vacate the base, three U.S. officials said.
The airstrip at Shamsi in Baluchistan will continue to be used for some drone surveillance operations, while the CIA, which is principally responsible for the missions, is already using facilities in Afghanistan to launch some armed drone aircraft strikes on targets over the border in Pakistan. [ID:nSGE764008]
"The facility remains fully operational and supports American counterterrorism operations in Pakistan," one of the officials told Reuters on Monday.
But the official added: "If, for whatever reason, it was no longer available, there are certainly other ways to continue the program and to sustain the intense pressure it's put on al Qaeda and its militant allies."
The Pakistani tribal regions are known to provide sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants and the United States has been pressing Pakistan to launch a broad military offensive there.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that three months ago the CIA had suspended using the base as a launch site for armed drones targeting al Qaeda and other militants.
However, a U.S. official said any temporary lull in drone operations from the Pakistani base was part of a wider dropoff instituted by the United States during bilateral tensions over Pakistan's arrest and detention of CIA contractor Raymond Davis on murder charges.
Davis shot dead two Pakistani men after what he described as an armed robbery attempt. He eventually was released following intense pressure from U.S. authorities, who claimed he was covered by diplomatic immunity. The families of the men he shot were also paid compensation.
U.S. officials said CIA and Pakistani personnel remain stationed at the Shamsi facility. Keeping the base open for U.S. drone flights and maintaining Pakistani involvement in base operations is regarded in Washington as a means of ensuring that Islamabad retains a stake in the CIA's use of the remotely controlled drones.
The two U.S. officials said the United States already has adequate infrastructure outside Pakistan -- principally in Afghanistan, though one official said ships could also be used -- to continue substantial drone operations against militant targets in Pakistan.
Relations between Washington and Islamabad have been strained since late last year, when the CIA withdrew its Pakistan station chief after his name was leaked to the media.
Ties between the two governments deteriorated further in the wake of Davis' detention and the May 2 raid in which U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden at a hideout near Pakistan's main military academy. The U.S. did not inform Pakistan about the bin Laden raid until American raiders were clear of Pakistani territory.
On Sunday, Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani was quoted saying that his government had never allowed the United States to use Pakistani bases for lethal drone strikes. Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar last week said Pakistan had asked the U.S. to vacate the Shamsi base.
U.S. officials deny both of those assertions. But CIA drone operations inside Pakistan remain classified in order to allow Pakistani authorities to deny knowing about U.S. activities for domestic political reasons.
(Edited by David Alexander and Jackie Frank)