US must take Pakistan drone concerns seriously: Sharif

RAIWIND, Pakistan (AFP) - Pakistan's incoming prime minister said on Monday that he wanted to strengthen his country's fractious relations with the United States but warned that Washington must take seriously their concerns about drone strikes.

Mr Nawaz Sharif, who won an unprecedented third term in Saturday's general election, said the US would have Pakistan's "full support" as it withdraws the bulk of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Missile attacks by unmanned drone aircraft on militant targets in Pakistan's tribal north-west, a haven for Taleban and Al-Qaeda fighters along the Afghan border, have been a public thorn in relations in recent years.

Washington sees the attacks as an important weapon in the fight against Islamist extremism but they are unpopular in Pakistan because of reports of civilian casualties and because they are seen as an infringement of sovereignty.

Mr Sharif told foreign journalists at his estate outside the eastern city of Lahore that he would discuss the issue with the US.

"Drones are indeed a challenge to our sovereignty. Of course we have taken this matter up very seriously and also spoken to the Americans during our meetings," he said.

"This is a very important issue and our concern must be understood properly. We will sit with our American friends and we will certainly talk to them on this issue."

Mr Sharif's last term as premier came to an abrupt end when he was deposed in a coup led by then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf.

The military ruler enjoyed good relations with Washington, but ties were hammered by a series of crises under the outgoing government led by the Pakistan People's Party.

Relations reached rock bottom when Pakistan closed overland Nato supply lines for six months in response to a botched US air raid that killed 24 border guards.

Ties have warmed again in recent months and Mr Sharif said he would work to see that this continued.

"I think we have good relations with the United States of America. We certainly have to listen to each other," he said.

"If there are concerns on either side I think we should address those concerns and strengthen this relationship."

The US and NATO are due to pull out the bulk of their troops and equipment built up in 11 years of fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan by the end of next year and Mr Sharif pledged Pakistan's cooperation.

"We will facilitate the Americans as far as the withdrawal is concerned," he said.

"American troops are being withdrawn in 2014 and we will extend full support to them and we will see everything goes smoothly."