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Civilian toll from Pakistan drone attacks not near what claimed
AP » Villagers say most of dead were militant combatants

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Before dawn on April 22, 2011, a drone fired missiles at the guest room of a large compound in Hasan Khel, a village in the mountains dominated by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Pakistani militant commander fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The strike killed 25 people, including 20 militants, three children and two women, said Mamrez Gul, who owns a shop near the site of the attack. The militants were staying in the guest room, and the civilians were sleeping in a nearby room that was also destroyed by the blasts. A funeral was held for the women and children, but the bodies of the militants were taken away, said Mamrez Gul.

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He said the women and children were relatives of the compound’s owner, Gul Sharif, a militant commander loyal to Bahadur. He survived the attack, said two villagers, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A U.S. counterterrorism official in Washington said no women and children were observed in the compound before the strike. But Mamrez Gul, taxi driver Noor Habib Wazir and farmer Gul Paenda Khan said they attended the funeral of the women and children.

A strike on August 14, 2010, on a compound in Issori Boikhel village also illustrated the danger to civilians who live close to militants. The attack killed seven Pakistani Taliban fighters and seven tribesmen, said Shera Deen, the owner of the compound that was hit. Safir Ullah, a student, corroborated the casualty count, as did a third villager who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Deen, who was not in the compound when it was attacked, said he lost two sons, a brother and three nephews, one of them 10 years old.

The seventh tribesman killed was 26-year-old Sohrab Khan, who was leading evening prayers for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when the missiles struck, the villagers said. According to them, the Taliban fighters entered the compound to join the prayers, which would explain why they were bunched together with civilians.

The tribesmen were buried in a graveyard with a wooden headstone indicating they were victims of a drone attack, the villagers said. The Taliban fighters were buried in a different corner of the same graveyard in an unmarked grave, they said.

U.S. counterterrorism officials disputed the death tolls and other details of some of the strikes, including the exact locations. One said the U.S. "had no reliable evidence" that civilians were killed in any of the strikes examined and questioned the reliability of villagers’ accounts.

The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified.

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Regarding the March 17, 2011, strike on Shiga village, the bloodiest attack investigated by the AP, U.S. officials familiar with drone operations said the group targeted was heavily armed, some of its members were connected to al-Qaida, and all "acted in a manner consistent with AQ (al-Qaida)-linked militants."

But villagers and Pakistani officials said the missiles hit a community meeting, or jirga, held to resolve a mining dispute, killing four Pakistani Taliban fighters and 38 civilians and tribal police.

The militants were there because they controlled the area and any decision made would need their approval, said Gul Ahmed, a farmer.

Citing the number visible in the monitoring before and during the attack, U.S. officials said the total of dead was roughly half what villagers reported. But Ahmed said there were 42 caskets lined up at the funeral, and he provided the victims’ names.

Christopher Rogers, a lawyer who has studied civilian casualties in Pakistan from drone attacks and other military action, said that regardless of casualty tolls, the U.S. still needed to make the program more transparent to prove it is complying with international laws on who may be targeted and measures to minimize the loss of innocent lives.

"The percentage of militants killed is an important piece of this, but it is one piece of a larger picture," said Rogers, who works at Open Society Foundations, an advocacy group in New York City. "The bigger issue here is the covert nature of the program, the complete lack of any transparency and accountability and the lack of information about how the U.S. distinguishes a militant from a civilian."

The drone program is so secretive that only last month did President Barack Obama publicly acknowledge its existence. He said the strikes "have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," but gave no details.

Rights organizations have been unable to verify the number of civilian casualties caused by drones because of the danger and difficulty of getting to sites.

One London-based group, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has published drone casualty figures based on media reports, witness testimony and other information. It said strikes have killed between 2,383 and 3,109 people, of whom 464 to 815 were civilians. That implies the percentage of militants killed was roughly 70 to 80 percent. The group said an unidentified U.S. counterterrorism official insisted its civilian casualty figures were much too high.

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