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ISLAMABAD: Wednesday’s drone attack has turned into a spat between Pakistan and the US over the target — whether or not it was a refugee camp.

“The claim in an MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) statement yesterday that US forces struck an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency yesterday is false,” a rather strongly worded statement issued by the US embassy in Islamabad said on Thursday.

The emphasis was clearly on a refugee camp not being targeted.

Islamabad insists it was a refugee camp; American embassy says FO claim is ‘false’

It is rare for the US to outright deny an attack even though the American officials generally avoid speaking about the strikes. The phrasing of the statement was even stranger as it said that the FO claim was “false”. Statements from diplomatic missions normally state their position on an issue without judging others’ perspective as true or false.

FO spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal was twice asked about the US denial at his weekly media briefing, but instead of entering into a war of words, he just repeated the condemnation issued on Wednesday. This implied that Pakistan government was sticking to its position.

However, a more forceful response came from military’s public affairs division ISPR, which insisted that the target of the US drone strike was a refugee camp. The Inter-Services Public Relations took the attack as a vindication of sorts of Pakistani position that no more organised terror sanctuaries remained on its territory and any residual element that exists is based in the refugee neighbourhoods.

“The drone strike on 24 January in Spintal, Hangu district, was on individual target, who had morphed into Afghan Refugees and not any organised terrorist sanctuaries which have been eliminated,” an ISPR statement said.

The ISPR further reminded that 43 refugee camps out of total 54 were in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including Hangu with overlap in Fata. It, therefore, re-emphasised its demand that for meaningfully resolving the dispute over terror sanctuaries Afghan refugees needed to be repatriated to their homeland at the earliest.

Apparently, the confusion among Pakistani authorities about the exact location — Kurram (a tribal agency), according to the FO, and Hangu district (a settled district) as per the ISPR account of the attack — provided the US the space to deny the strike in Kurram Agency.

The FO on Wednesday condemned a drone attack on an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency, which constituted the first formal confirmation of any such hit on Pakistani territory by US Predator UAVs in 19 months since the killing of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Balochistan in May 2016. The attack was categorically described as “a unilateral step” that was detrimental for cooperation against terrorism.

Terror sanctuaries have been a major irritant in Pak-US ties for long, but gained special focus after the Trump administration announced its strategy for South Asia and Afghanistan. The language of the US administration officials on Pakistan has also gradually turned harsher as the ties deteriorated sharply.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2018