Pakistan’s claim that the U.S. hit an Afghan refugee camp in a drone strike is “false,” a U.S. spokesman claimed on Thursday, as tensions between the uneasy allies ratchet higher over Islamabad’s alleged support for militants.
The apparent strike took place roughly 50 kilometers inside Pakistani territory on Wednesday, according to local authorities. It killed a mid-level commander from the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network, officials and a source close to the Islamist group have told AFP.
The incident comes just weeks after Washington froze nearly two billion dollars in aid to Pakistan over its alleged support for militants, a move which had sparked speculation that the U.S. could resume drone strikes or launch operations along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
Local officials have told AFP that the pre-dawn strike took place more than 50 kilometers from the Afghan border, in the village of Mamuzai in Kurram agency, one of the districts in the country’s semi-autonomous tribal region.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry has twice condemned the “unilateral action,” saying the strike hit an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram, but making no mention of casualties. But the U.S. embassy in Islamabad issued a rare denial, with a spokesman telling AFP: “The claim in [a foreign ministry] statement yesterday that U.S. forces struck an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency yesterday is false.”
The foreign ministry did not offer details on the refugee camp it said was struck. The U.N.’s refugee agency told AFP it runs no camps in the tribal region.
The Pakistani military, which earlier this month said the U.S. had offered assurances it would not carry out any “unilateral actions” in the country in the wake of the aid freeze, later contradicted the foreign ministry’s claim. In a statement it said the drone hit an Afghan refugee settlement in Hangu, a district in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Kurram Agency.
It also did not elaborate on the nature of the camp. UNHCR said it runs 43 Afghan refugee settlements in KP, but a spokesman told AFP on Thursday: “There has been no drone strike on any of the UNHCR refugee camps in KP.”
The U.S. embassy in Islamabad said it had no further comment on the Pakistani military’s claim. “I can confirm that there were not any Department of Defense air strikes outside of Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews told AFP in Washington.
The tribal region and parts of KP bordering them are largely off-limits to foreign journalists, and AFP was unable to independently verify the claims.
The U.S. and Afghanistan have long accused Pakistan of ignoring or even collaborating with groups that attack Afghanistan from havens inside Pakistan, a claim Islamabad denies. Washington’s decision to freeze aid to Islamabad, announced by U.S. President Donald Trump in a New Year’s Day tweet, was designed to force Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus to cut support for Islamist groups.
It was met with indignation in Pakistan, which says the U.S. does not acknowledge the thousands of lives it has lost and billions it has spent in its long war on extremism.
“Pakistan condemned the drone strike in Kurram Agency carried out by the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) yesterday, which targeted an Afghan refugee camp,” the foreign ministry said in its statement on Thursday, making an unusually direct reference to the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan.
“The drone strike on Jan. 24 in Spintal, Hangu district was on individual target who had morphed into Afghan Refugees and not any organized terrorists sanctuary which have been eliminated,” the Pakistani military statement said.
Both statements said the incident highlighted how refugee communities could be infiltrated by militants and therefore refugees needed to be repatriated to Afghanistan.
Nearly 1.4 million Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan, according to UNHCR figures. Unofficial estimates suggest a further 700,000 undocumented refugees could be in the country. After the aid freeze this month, Islamabad set a deadline of Jan. 31 for all the refugees to return to Afghanistan. Such deadlines have been repeatedly extended in the past.