US denies hitting Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan drone strike

A Pakistani tribesman inspects the site of a drone strike in Kurram Agency on Jan 24.
A Pakistani tribesman inspects the site of a drone strike in Kurram Agency on Jan 24.PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's claim that the US hit an Afghan refugee camp in a drone strike is "false", a US spokesman said on Thursday (Jan 25), as tensions between the uneasy allies ratchet higher over Islamabad's alleged support for militants.

The drone strike, which took place well inside Pakistani territory on Wednesday, killed a mid-level commander from the Taleban-affiliated Haqqani network, local officials and a source close to the Islamist group have told AFP.

Pakistan's foreign ministry has twice condemned the "unilateral action", saying the strike hit an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram agency, one of the districts in the country's semi-autonomous tribal region, but making no mention of casualties.

"The claim in (a foreign ministry) statement yesterday that US forces struck an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency yesterday is false," a spokesman for the US embassy in Islamabad said.

But later on Thursday the Pakistani military contradicted the foreign office's claim, saying that the strike had in fact hit an Afghan refugee settlement in Hangu, a district in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) which borders Kurram agency.

There are 43 refugee settlements in KP, the military said, including one in Hangu which had been hit in the strike.

It was not clear which 43 camps the statement referred to. Neither the foreign ministry nor the military has elaborated on the nature of the refugee camp they say was hit.

The UN refugee agency runs 43 Afghan refugee settlements in the province, but a spokesman told AFP Thursday: "There has been no drone strike on any of the UNHCR refugee camps in KP."

The US said it had no further comment on the Pakistani military's claim. The tribal region and parts of KP bordering them are largely off-limits to foreign journalists, and AFP was unable to independently verify the claims.

STRIKE '50KM INSIDE PAKISTAN'

The US and Afghanistan have long accused Pakistan of ignoring or even collaborating with groups that attack Afghanistan from havens inside Pakistan, a claim Islamabad denies.

Washington froze aid to Pakistan worth almost US$2 billion (S$2.6 billion) this month, in a move designed to force Pakistan's military and intelligence apparatus to cut support for Islamist groups.

The freeze had sparked speculation that the US could resume drone strikes or launch operations along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military has said US Central Command had assured them Washington "is not contemplating any unilateral action" inside Pakistan.

Local officials have told AFP that the pre-dawn strike took place more than 50km from the Afghan border, in the village of Mamuzai.

A senior local official told AFP the area falls under the jurisdiction of Kurram agency.

The UNHCR spokesman confirmed there are no refugee camps in the tribal areas. Local officials also told AFP they were not aware of a refugee camp in the area.

"Pakistan condemned the drone strike in Kurram Agency carried out by the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) yesterday, which targeted an Afghan refugee camp," the foreign ministry said in its statement on Thursday, making an unusually direct reference to the US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan.

"The drone strike on Jan 24 in Spintal, Hangu district was on individual target who had morphed into Afghan Refugees and not any organised terrorists sanctuary which have been eliminated," the Pakistani military statement said.

Both the foreign ministry and military said the incident highlighted how refugee communities could infiltrated by militants and therefore refugees needed to be repatriated to Afghanistan.

Nearly 1.4 million Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan, according to UNHCR figures. Unofficial estimates suggest a further 700,000 undocumented refugees could be in the country.

After the aid freeze this month, Islamabad set a deadline of January 31 for all the refugees to return to Afghanistan. Such deadlines have been repeatedly extended in the past.