Bruce Loudon / The Australia – 2008-07-29 21:20:27
WASHINGTON (July 30, 2008) — Pakistan’s Prime Minister lashed out at George W. Bush during talks in Washington yesterday, “reproaching” the US President over a US Hellfire drone missile strike inside Pakistani territory only hours before the leaders met.
The missile strike that reportedly killed an al-Qa’ida chemical and biological weapons expert came hours before new Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met Mr Bush and warned him not to launch “unilateral” strikes on Pakistani soil.
Speaking immediately after his meeting with the US President, Mr Gilani said: “This action should not have been taken by the United States. It’s our job because we are fighting the war for ourselves.”
If the missile strike was proven to have been a US operation, it would be a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, he said.
“Basically, Americans are a little impatient. Therefore in the future I think we’ll have more co-operation on the intelligence side and we’ll do the job ourselves,” Mr Gilani said.
But US officials strongly defended the missile strike that was claimed to have killed Abu Khabab al-Masri, al-Qa’ida’s Egyptian-born chemical and biological weapons expert.
Mr Gilani, who has been under pressure to do more to combat al-Qa’ida and Taliban militants in Pakistan, told reporters after his meeting at the White House that Pakistan was committed to fighting extremists.
“We are committed to fight against those extremists and terrorists who are destroying and making the world not safe,” Mr Gilani said.
Pakistan has been a key US ally in the war on terror since the September 11, 2001, attacks and has received an estimated $10 billion in mostly military aid over the past six years.
But Mr Gilani’s remarks revealed the growing tension between Islamabad and Washington over how to tackle the militants, many of whom have been sheltering in northern Pakistan since being driven out of Afghanistan by a US-led invasion in late 2001.
Concerned about mounting NATO casualties in Afghanistan, the US has been pressing Pakistan for months to take more direct action to prevent the militants from making incursions over the Afghan border.
But Pakistan is reluctant to anger its mostly Muslim population and to complicate relations with the independence-minded Pashtun tribesmen who populate the frontier with Afghanistan. Since coming to power in February elections, the Pakistani Government has negotiated ceasefire agreements with the militants that US officials fear will give them time to regroup.
So in recent months, the US has increased the frequency of its missile attacks on militant targets in Pakistan – many of them using remotely piloted Predator drones.
Most have been with the tacit permission of Islamabad, but Pakistani officials complain that several have been conducted without their prior knowledge.
Mr Bush stressed after his meeting with Mr Gilani that the US respected Pakistan’s sovereignty.
“The US, I repeat, respects the sovereignty of this democracy. And we also appreciate the Prime Minister’s strong words against the extremists and terrorists who not only would do us harm but have harmed people inside, in Pakistan,” Mr Bush said.
Mr Bush called Pakistan a “strong ally” and said he had received a “strong commitment” from Mr Gilani that Pakistan would try “as best as possible” to prevent militants from crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
Pakistani security officials last night were still trying to check reports that the suspected US missile strike had killed Masri.
The death of Masri would be the most significant blow against al-Qa’ida’s leadership in at least six months. The Egyptian-born chemical engineer is believed to have trained a generation of al-Qa’ida fighters in bombmaking and has a $5 million bounty on his head.
Similar reports of his death in 2006 turned out to be unfounded.
Bruce Loudon is the South Asia correspondent for The Australian. Additional reporting: The Times
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