US dismisses claims drone strike hurt Pakistan talks

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States brushed aside claims a drone strike that killed Pakistani Taleban leader Hakimullah Mehsud had scuttled the government's efforts to launch talks to end a bloody insurgency.

A State Department official declined on Saturday to confirm that Mehsud had been killed on Friday, while insisting that Pakistan and the US had a "shared strategic interest in ending extremist violence."

But "the issue of whether to negotiate with TTP is an internal matter for Pakistan, and we refer you to the government of Pakistan for further details," the official added.

The Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan is a coalition of factions behind some of the highest-profile attacks to hit Pakistan in the bloody six-year insurgency that has left thousands of soldiers, police and civilians dead.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar earlier slammed the US strike as a "drone attack on the peace process," saying a team of religious clerics was about to meet the TTP with a view to starting peace talks when Mehsud was killed.

The strike "scuttled" the talks, he added.

The US official confirmed that US Ambassador Richard Olson had been summoned by Pakistan's foreign ministry, but declined to discuss the content of the discussion.

The move was a highly unusual one by Islamabad, which routinely condemns drone strikes as a violation of its sovereignty.

"We have an ongoing dialogue with Pakistan regarding all aspects of the relationship and our shared interests, including security and counterterrorism cooperation, and we work together to address each others' concerns," the State Department official added.

"More broadly, the United States and Pakistan continue to have a vital, shared strategic interest in ending extremist violence so as to build a more prosperous, stable and peaceful region."

The official also stressed that the US had designated the TTP as a foreign terrorist organization and that the group that has a "symbiotic" relationship with Al-Qaeda "has repeatedly threatened to attack the United States." It also claimed responsibility for the failed May 2010 bomb attack in New York's Times Square, among other concerns.

Meanwhile, the TTP's ruling council met to choose a new leader after the death of Mehsud, who had a US$5 million (S$6.2 million) US bounty on his head and was indicted on charges of conspiracy to murder US citizens and use a weapon of mass destruction against US citizens abroad.

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