WASHINGTON, Oct 31: The US State Department has said that civilian deaths in drone strikes were considerably lower than has been projected by human rights groups.
At a briefing in Washington, the department’s spokesperson Jen Psaki refused to say if US estimates were close to those of Pakistan’s but pointed out that the figures released last week by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were incorrect.
“I’m not going to give a, ‘it’s closer to one than the other’, but obviously, our issue with the initial report was how high they were,” Ms Psaki said.
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Defence Ministry reported that only three per cent of 2,227 people killed in US drone strikes since 2008 were civilians.
This is far below earlier estimates — both by independent groups and the Pakistani government — that reported a rate of 10 per cent and higher over the same period.
During a visit to Washington last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the drone strikes as “counter-productive” because they killed a high number of civilians and urged the United States to stop the attacks.
The surprisingly low figure in Islamabad’s official report sparked criticism from groups that have investigated deaths from the air strikes.
In an email to New York Times, UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson noted that the revised figures were “strikingly at odds” with those the Pakistani Foreign Ministry had given to him earlier.
In a recent report to the United Nations, Mr Emmerson said the Pakistani government had told him that US drone strikes had killed at least 400 civilians since they began in 2004.
Mr Emmerson said he would now write to Islamabad seeking clarification. “It is essential that the government of Pakistan now clarify the true position,” he said.
Last week, Amnesty International reported that the drones had killed up to 900 civilian and urged the US Congress to address these “human rights abuses that could amount to war crimes”.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation put the figure at 185.
An Associated Press study in early 2012 of 10 of the deadliest drone strikes in North Waziristan over the preceding 18 months found that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 per cent — at least 138 — were militants.
An Amnesty International researcher Mustafa Qadri told NYT that discrepancy in the various figures highlighted both the opaque nature of the American campaign and the failure of the Pakistani authorities to properly investigate drone strikes.
Asked to comment on the discrepancy between the official Pakistani and other reports, Ms Psaki said the State Department was still reviewing this matter.
“We’ve met with representatives from both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch,” she said, adding that the State Department had publicly expressed its disagreement with their figures.