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As the United States (US) on Thursday rejected Foreign Office (FO) claims that a Jan 24 drone strike targeted an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency, the army's media wing explained that the drone targeted a terrorist hiding in an Afghan refugee complex in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) statement said: "The drone strike on Jan 24 in Speen Tal, Hangu district, was on an individual target who had morphed into Afghan refugees and not [on] any organised terrorists sanctuary, which have been eliminated."

The statement added that there are 54 Afghan refugee camps and complexes in Pakistan, 43 of which are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa "with overlap in Fata". One of the complexes in Hangu were targeted by the drone strike on Jan 24.

"This validates Pakistan’s stance that left over terrorists easily morph into Afghan refugees camps/complexes," the ISPR statement said, referring to the integration of militants into local populations, particularly in the tribal areas.

"Thus their [Afghan refugees'] early and dignified return to Afghanistan is essential. Pakistan’s brotherly hospitality to peaceful Afghan refugees must not be exploited by the terrorists," the statement added.

Interestingly, a United Nations refugee agency spokesperson told AFP that there are no refugee camps in the tribal areas, and no sign of a camp can be seen in pictures from the site.

Earlier today, US Embassy Spokesperson Richard Snelsire told DawnNews that Pakistan's claim that United States forces struck an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency on Wednesday is false.

The spokesperson, however, did not confirm or deny whether the US army had carried out a drone attack in the region.

Map showing Afghan refugee camps in Hangu district — ISPR
Map showing Afghan refugee camps in Hangu district — ISPR

Rabbani condemns US drone strike

Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani on Thursday strongly condemned the alleged US drone strike on Pakistani territory, saying: “We should send a strong message to the US regarding this attack.”

“Violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, autonomy and its territory is unacceptable,” declared Rabbani, who was addressing a Senate meeting.

“Instead of an adjournment motion, this matter should be discussed in the entire parliamentary committee,” he added.

On Wednesday, Pakistan had condemned an alleged US drone strike deep inside its territory, saying: “Pakistan condemns a drone strike in Kurram Agency carried out by the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) this [Wednesday] morning, which targeted an Afghan refugee camp."

Islamabad had also warned Washington that such ‘unilateral’ steps would be detrimental to cooperation between the two countries in fight against terrorism.

The Foreign Office (FO) on Thursday, responding to the US Embassy spokesperson's remarks, said that Pakistan stands by its initial statement.

Yesterday, Haqqani Network Commander Ehsan alias Khawari and two of his companions were allegedly killed during a US drone strike.

Area residents had told Dawn that an unmanned plane fired missiles on a mud house in Speen Tal near the garrison town of Thall, killing two men namely Ihsanullah and Nasir Mehmood.

While locals said this was the third drone strike in Speen Tal in recent months, this was perhaps the first condemnation by the FO after the killing of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour by a drone in Balochistan on May 22, 2016.

Relations with the US have been on a downslide since the announcement of the new South Asia and Afghanistan policy by US President Donald Trump.

Last month, in a report on Afghanistan, Pentagon had stated that a range of tools including “unilateral steps in areas of divergence” would be employed to induce "required change" in Pakistan's stance.

The US also suspended security assistance for Pakistan as a follow-up to US President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet accusing Islamabad of “lies and deceit”.

A day earlier, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had told journalists that Pakistan had all options, including both diplomatic and military responses, available for responding to any violation of its sovereignty. He had also underscored that there was no justification for any unilateral action.

With additional reporting by AFP.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the US Embassy spokesperson's name. The error is regretted.