DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Two U.S. missile strikes killed six alleged Afghan Taliban fighters in a Pakistani tribal region Wednesday, drawing sharp condemnation from Pakistan just days after it asked for greater limits on such attacks.
The strikes were the first since a mid-March attack took out what the Pakistanis said were dozens of peaceful tribesmen. A U.S. official at the time denied innocent people had been targeted.
The U.S. relies heavily on the covert, CIA-run missile program to kill al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in Pakistan's northwest, and with a few exceptions keeps up a steady pace of strikes even when relations with Pakistan are tense.
For its part, Pakistan publicly denounces the strikes, but has secretly helped the program.
In a meeting Monday with CIA head Leon Panetta, however, Pakistan's spy chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, requested advance notice of the missile strikes and fewer strikes overall, according to U.S. officials.
The meeting came amid lingering tensions over the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis by an American who turned out to be a CIA contractor.
The U.S. spy agency is considering the request for more information but sees other demands as nonstarters, as American officials believe there are factions in the Pakistani intelligence supporting the Taliban and other such groups fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Wednesday's strikes involved seven missiles striking a vehicle and a motorcycle in the forested Bhangar area of South Waziristan, said the two Pakistani officials, who are based in the northwest and receive information from field agents and informants.
They said the dead were Afghan Taliban fighters who sneaked across the border. But the information is nearly impossible to verify independently — the area is remote, dangerous and access is legally restricted.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry criticized the strikes in a statement, saying it had lodged a "strong protest" with the U.S. ambassador and reiterating its official stance that the attacks engender more support for militants.
"Drone attacks have become a core irritant in the counter-terror campaign," the statement said.
U.S. embassy confirmed that the ambassador received a call from the Foreign Ministry about the strike.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official also criticized the strike, saying the timing was inappropriate coming so soon after the meeting in Washington. Like the other intelligence officials, he spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The U.S. rarely discusses the missile program publicly, but American officials have in the past described it as very successful in taking out top militants. Pakistani citizens generally hold a low opinion of the program, however, alleging numerous civilians end up killed or maimed by the attacks.
Most of the strikes land in North Waziristan, where several militant groups battling Western forces in Afghanistan are based.
On March 17, a drone strike killed roughly three dozen people in the North Waziristan tribal area. Pakistani intelligence officials initially described the dead as militants, but later said at least 24 civilians were from tribes asking the Taliban to mediate a dispute.
Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, issued a rare public statement in which he condemned the attack and U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter was summoned in protest.
Earlier this week, Munter gave a speech in which he urged the two countries to move beyond the recent tensions.
Much of the effort to repair relations comes since the release of the American CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, who shot the two Pakistanis. The U.S. insisted Davis acted in self-defense against robbers and that he had diplomatic immunity. He was freed after relatives of his victims agreed to accept financial compensation.
Associated Press Writer Nahal Toosi contributed to this report from Islamabad.