WASHINGTON, Feb 14: The Pentagon has said that the first time it heard about the presence of a drone base in Pakistan was when the issue came up during a hearing in the US Senate earlier this week.

“No, I have no comment on that,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell when asked to comment on a claim by Senator Dianne Feinstein on Thursday that US drone strikes into Fata were launched from a base inside Pakistan.

“Can you deny it?” the spokesman was asked during a regular briefing.

“The first I have heard of it. I know nothing of it. I -- I’d, frankly, follow it up with her. I know nothing of it,” he said.

Senator Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, made this claim in a hearing with retired admiral Dennis Blair, the new director of US National Intelligence.

Her disclosure was unusual because the US government still refuses to acknowledge conducting missile strikes into Pakistan. The strikes are a public source of tension between the two countries.

Senator Feinstein made these remarks while noting the apparent contradiction in Islamabad’s position on this issue.

“I don’t know whether you would care to comment on this but (I) also noticed that Mr Holbrooke in Pakistan ran into considerable concern about the use of the Predator strikes in the Fata area of Pakistan,” she said. “And yet, as I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base.”

Richard Holbrooke, the special US envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, who visited Islamabad last week, encountered a strong reaction from Pakistani politicians over the strikes when he met them in Lahore two days ago.

But despite the criticism, the strikes have continued and on Saturday US drones reportedly killed up to 32 people in South Waziristan.

In 2008, US drones carried out about 30 missile attacks on militant targets inside Pakistan, killing more than 200 people. US and Pakistani media have reported that Islamabad and Washington have a secret agreement that authorizes the strikes.

Officials in Washington say that while the Pakistani government publicly condemns the strikes, the matter is never discussed in bilateral meetings between Pakistani and US officials. They insist that neither the Musharraf nor the Zardari regime ever launched an official complaint with Washington over the strikes.