ISLAMABAD: Pakistan told the United States to leave a remote desert air base reportedly used as a hub for covert CIA drone attacks, Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar was quoted by state media as saying Wednesday.
His remarks are the latest indication of Pakistan attempting to limit US activities since a clandestine American military raid killed Osama bin Laden on May 2 and plunged ties between the anti-terror allies into chaos.
“We have told them (US officials) to leave the air base,” national news agency APP quoted Mukhtar as telling a group of journalists in his office. Images said to be of US Predator drones at Shamsi have been published by Google Earth in the past. The air strip is 900 kilometres (560 miles) southwest of the capital Islamabad in Baluchistan province. A US embassy spokeswoman told AFP there were no US military personnel at the Shamsi base.
American drone attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s northwestern semi-autonomous tribal belt are hugely unpopular among a general public opposed to the government’s alliance with Washington. CNN reported in April that US military personnel had left the base, said to be a key hub for American drone operations, in the fallout over public killings by a CIA contractor in Lahore and his subsequent detention.
Reports said operations at the base, which Washington has not publicly acknowledged, were conducted with tacit Pakistani military consent. Neither does the United States officially confirm Predator drone attacks, but its military and the CIA operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy the armed, unmanned aircraft in the region. The bin Laden raid humiliated the Pakistani military and invited allegations of incompetence and complicity, as well as severely damaging trust between Islamabad and Washington.
“This trust deficit could be reduced by sitting together and taking joint actions,” the state-sun Associated Press of Pakistan quoted Mukhtar as saying. According to US Vice Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the bin Laden raid, the US military believes Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar is in Pakistan and had asked the Pakistani army to find him.
Asked about Omar, Mukhtar said: “If he was in Pakistan, even then, he would have left the country after the Abbottabad incident.” Mukhtar, who belongs to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, said that he supported negotiations with the Taliban to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan.