ISLAMABAD: As tensions between two uneasy allies ratchet higher following President Trump’s New Year tweet, Pakistan and US on Thursday once engaged in a diplomatic spat over Wednesday’s drone strike in Kurram Agency, with both sides rejecting each other’s claims on the actual target of the attack.
“The drone strike on 24 January in Spintal, Hangu district, was on individual target who had morphed into Afghan Refugees and not any organised terrorists sanctuary which have been eliminated,” a statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said on Thursday.
“Out of total 54 Afghan Refugees Camps/complexes in Pakistan, 43 are in KP with overlap in FATA (complexes in Hangu including where drone struck on 24 Jan 18 shown on map),” the statement said. “This validates Pakistan’s stance that left over terrorists easily morph into Afghan Refugees camps/complexes,” it maintained. “Thus their early and dignified return to Afghanistan is essential. Pakistan’s brotherly hospitality to peaceful Afghan Refugees must not be exploited by the terrorists,” the statement concluded.
Last month, the government had approved only 30-day extension to the stay of around 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Islamabad has now set a deadline of January 31 for all the refugees to return to Afghanistan.
According to the UNHCR statistics, nearly 1.4 million Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan. However, unofficial data suggests that a further 700,000 undocumented refugees could be in the country. At least three people including a Haqqani network commander were killed in a drone strike on a house situated close to the Kurram Agency on Wednesday.
Pakistan was quick to condemn the United States (US) drone strike, admonishing Washington for taking “unilateral actions… [that] are detrimental to the spirit of cooperation between the two countries in the fight against terrorism.” “Pakistan condemns drone strike in Kurram Agency carried out by the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) this [Wednesday] morning, which targeted an Afghan refugee camp,” it added.
In an unusual reaction, the US embassy in Islamabad rejected the claim that the drone hit an Afghan refugee camp as ‘false’.
“The claim in a foreign ministry statement that US forces struck an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency is false,” Rick Sinelsine, spokesman for the US embassy, said.
A spokesman for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, added to the confusion by declaring that there were “no refugee camps in the tribal areas, and no sign of a camp can be seen in pictures from the site.”
However, the Foreign Office (FO) said that Pakistan stood by its initial statement.
At a regular briefing on Thursday, FO spokesman Dr Faisal strongly condemned the drone strike in Kurram Agency and maintained that there has been no understanding with the US allowing action by its forces in Waziristan and Kurram Agency. “Pakistan continues to emphasize to the US the importance of sharing actionable intelligence so that appropriate action is taken against terrorists by our own forces within our territory,” he said. “Such unilateral actions are detrimental to spirit of cooperation between two countries. Cooperation and not confrontation is the only way forward to peace and stability in the region and beyond,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman maintained that repatriation of Afghan refugees and an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process was the only way forward for peace in that country as well as the whole region. “Afghan government should work on pull factors to encourage repatriation of refugees,” he suggested.
The Upper House of parliament also condemned on Thursday the US drone strike in Kurram Agency, saying the attack was a breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
“US drone attack is a breach of Pakistan’s airspace and sovereignty. Senate of Pakistan strongly condemns the attack,” Chairman Raza Rabbani told the House.