- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani soldiers practiced shooting at pilotless “drone” aircraft Friday, the military said a day after the government lodged a protest with the U.S. ambassador over drone missile strikes in Pakistani territory.

Anti-aircraft guns and short-range surface-to-air missiles were used during the exercise conducted at a desert range near the city of Muzaffargarh in the central Punjab province.

“The elements of Army Air Defense demonstrated their shooting skills by targeting the drones flying at different altitudes,” the military said.

Air defense commander Lt. Gen. Muhammad Ashraf Saleem praised the “precision and agility” of the gunners.

Pakistan is bristling over a series of missile strikes by U.S. drones targeting al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the lawless tribal regions along the Afghan border in recent weeks.

The U.S. forces have carried out more than 20 such drone attacks in the past three months, reflecting U.S. impatience over militants from Pakistan fueling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and fears that al Qaeda fighters in northwestern Pakistan could plan attacks in the West.

A U.S. commando raid on Sept. 3 led to a diplomatic storm, and there has not been any subsequent incursion by ground troops.

But the controversy over the drones flared again after the latest missile strike, on Wednesday, hit a target in Bannu district in North West Frontier Province, deeper inside Pakistani territory and south of the semi-autonomous Waziristan tribal region that has borne the brunt of the attacks.

Protesting the strike in Bannu during a session of the National Assembly, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani voiced hope that the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama would exercise more restraint.

Pakistan says the attacks violate its sovereignty, undermine efforts to win public support for the fight against militancy and make it harder to justify the U.S. alliance.

Meanwhile, a bomb attack killed at least 10 people and wounded 40 at the funeral for a Shi’ite Muslim on Friday in the northwestern Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan.

The attack sparked an outbreak of shooting around the hospital where the dead and wounded were brought, and police fired tear gas in an attempt to restore order, according to journalists at the scene.

The funeral was for a man killed Thursday, but a Shi’ite cleric was also killed Friday morning before the funeral.

Sectarian violence between militant Sunni Muslim and Shi’ite groups has plagued Dera Ismail Khan, a district bordering the South Waziristan tribal region, where support runs deep for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

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