ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday defended America's use of drones to hunt down wanted terror leaders, saying the pilotless planes are only used against confirmed targets and after much vetting.
"Let me very clear... first of all there have been very few drone strikes in this last year. Why? Because we have been so successful in rooting out Al-Qaeda in Pakistan," he told young Ethiopian students.
"Secondly the only people that we fire on are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest levels after a great deal of vetting."
The drone programme has been one of the most controversial aspects of the US fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Top leaders from both networks have been killed as a result of drone fire.
Yet the use of drones, mostly sent in covertly without the prior knowledge of other governments, has been sharply criticised particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire has sparked a groundswell of anger.
But Kerry insisted at an event hosted at the University of Addis Ababa: "I am convinced that we have one of the strictest, most accountable and fairest programmes."
Each target was carefully monitored and "sometimes it takes a year to build the authority to know that you're correct," Kerry said.
"We do not fire when we know there are children or collateral, we just don't. We have absolutely not shot at high-level targets when we have seen that there are people there," Kerry said.
The US "preference" was to capture suspects wanted by US agencies, Kerry said, maintaining that Islamic militants did not use the same caution when they attacked American or Western targets.
"I will tell you that the extremists who put bombs in those mosques never engage in the kind of clear discretion we have used in this programme," he said.
But he also maintained that America was not engaged in a war against Islam, and acknowledged that there had been mistakes by the United States.
President Barack Obama said Thursday he had approved strict rules for when the United States can carry out drone strikes against terror suspects abroad, saying lethal force could be used when no other alternatives exist.
Kerry also defended the US move to try open talks with the Taliban leadership, saying it was better to try to bring people to the table to resolve issues rather than try to fight it out.
"Years ago people thought the United States should not talk to China because of Mao Zedong," he told the event, hosted by the BBC, just hours before leaving for Amman.
"People thought we shouldn't talk to the Vietnamese during that war... but even as we fought them we had discussions in Paris about peace."