By BBC News
US President Barack Obama has defended the use of unmanned drone aircraft to kill suspected militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In unusually candid remarks, Mr Obama said the strikes targeted “people who are on a list of active terrorists”.
Pakistan says drone raids violate its sovereignty, although it is believed to have given them its tacit support. The US does not routinely speak publicly about drone operations, which have killed hundreds in recent years.
The dead include senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, as well as an unknown number of other militants and civilians. Establishing precise casualty figures and identifying the dead in such attacks is virtually impossible as independent media are barred from tribal areas near the Afghan border.
Rights group Amnesty International questioned the legality of drone strikes. Drone warfare has been a key feature of the Obama administration’s pursuit of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan but has rarely been discussed this openly.
Mr Obama made his comments during an hour-long video “hangout” on Google’s social network, Google+, which was also streamed live on YouTube.
More than 130,000 questions were submitted before the hangout began, and six people were invited to join the president online for the event. They were able to ask questions and seek follow-up answers from Mr Obama.
Asked about the use of drone strikes, which have soared in number during his presidency, Mr Obama said “a lot of these strikes have been in the Fata”, or Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
The strikes target “al-Qaeda suspects who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Mr Obama added. “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the ones we’re already engaging in.”
Mr Obama said drones had “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties”, adding that it was “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash”.
An Amnesty International statement demanded “a detailed explanation of how these strikes are lawful and what is being done to monitor civilian casualties and ensure proper accountability”.
“What are the rules of engagement? While the president’s confirmation of the use of drones in Pakistan is a welcome first step towards transparency, these and other questions need to be answered,” the statement said.
Few details are known about the covert US drone operation, which is run by the CIA and targets al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in the mountainous areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Several senior militants have been killed, as have many more lower ranking ones, correspondents say. But so have civilians – the attacks cause outrage in Pakistan, where many assert that the strikes cause indiscriminate deaths and injuries.