Pakistani civilian victims vent anger over US drones

Saadullah, a victim of a drone strike Saadullah was injured in a drone attack and says he lost three relatives

When tribal elders from the remote Pakistani region of North Waziristan travelled to Islamabad last week to protest against CIA drone strikes, a teenager called Tariq Khan was among them.

A BBC team caught him on camera, sitting near the front of a tribal assembly, or jirga, listening carefully.

Four days later the 16-year-old was dead - killed by one of the drones he was protesting against.

In his final days, Tariq was living in fear, according to Neil Williams from the British legal charity, Reprieve, who met him at the Jirga.

"He was really really petrified," said Mr Williams, "and so were his friends. He didn't want to go home because of the drones. They were all scared."

Tariq carried with him the identity card of his teenage cousin, Asmar Ullah, who was killed by a drone. On Monday he shared his fate.

Tariq's family say he was hit by two missiles as he was driving near Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.

The shy teenager, who was good with computers, was decapitated in the strike. His 12-year-old cousin Wahid was killed alongside him.

The boys were on their way to see a relative, according to Tariq's uncle, Noor Kalam, who we reached by phone.

He denied that Tariq had any link to militant groups. "We condemn this very strongly," he said. "He was just a normal boy who loved football."

The CIA's drone campaign is a covert war, conducted in remote terrain, where the facts are often in dispute.

The tribal belt is off limits to foreign journalists. Militants often seal off the locations where drone strikes take place. The truth can be buried with the dead.

After the missile strike on Monday, Pakistani officials said four suspected militants had been killed.

If the strike actually killed two young boys - as appears to be the case - it's unlikely anyone will ever be held to account.

Tariq Khan Tariq Khan's family insist that he had no militant connections (Photo: Neil Williams, Reprieve)

There are no confirmed death tolls but several independent organisations estimate that drones have killed more than 2,000 people since 2004. Most are suspected to be militants.

Many senior commanders from the Taliban and al-Qaeda are among the dead. But campaigners claim there have been hundreds of civilian victims, whose stories are seldom told.

A shy teenage boy called Saadullah is one of them. He survived a drone strike that killed three of his relatives, but he lost both legs, one eye and his hope for the future.

"I wanted to be a doctor," he told me, "but I can't walk to school anymore. When I see others going, I wish I could join them."

Like Tariq, Saadullah travelled to Islamabad for last week's jirga. Seated alongside him was Haji Zardullah, a white-bearded man who said he lost four nephews in a separate attack.

"None of these were harmful people," he said. "Two were still in school and one was in college."

Asghar Khan, a tribal elder in a cream turban, said three of his relatives paid with their lives for visiting a sick neighbour.

"My brother, my nephew and another relative were killed by a drone in 2008," he said. "They were sitting with this sick man when the attack took place. There were no Taliban."

Legal challenges

Viewed from a drone, any adult male in the tribal areas can look like a target, according to Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who is taking on the CIA.

A drone aircraft of the kind used by the US military The use of drone missiles has soared

"A Taliban or non-Taliban would be dressed in the same way," he said. "Everyone has a beard, a turban and an AK-47 because every person carries a weapon in that area, so anyone could be target."

Mr Akbar is suing the CIA for compensation in the Islamabad High Court, and plans to file a Supreme Court action.

He claims the US is getting away with murder in North Waziristan.

It's a view shared by Reprieve, whose Director Clive Stafford Smith has been meeting drone victims in Pakistan.

"What's going on here, unfortunately, is murder," he said.

"There's a war going on in Afghanistan, but none here in Pakistan, so what the CIA is doing here is illegal."

The CIA would doubtless say otherwise, if it were prepared to discuss the drone programme, but US officials are usually silent on the issue.

In a rare public comment two years ago, the then director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, defended the use of drones.

"We have targeted those who are enemies of the United States," he said. " When we use it, it is very precise and it limits collateral damage."

But the damage is not limited enough, say opponents like Mr Stafford Smith, who is gathering evidence about civilian deaths. From a shopping bag he produced a jagged chunk of metal - a missile fragment - believed to have killed a child in Waziristan in August of last year.

Clive Stafford Smith, director of the British legal charity Reprieve, holding the fragment of a missile Campaigners like Clive Stafford Smith say drones are resulting in murder

"I have a three-year-old son myself, and the idea that this thing killed someone very much like my little Wilf really tugs at your heart strings," he said.

Mr Stafford Smith says drones are changing the nature of modern warfare.

"If you are trying to surrender and you put your hands up to a drone, what happens?" he asks.

"They just fire the missile, so there are all sorts of Geneva Conventions issues which are not being discussed."

Campaigners also warn that drone strikes are counter-productive, generating more radicalism and more hatred of the West. They say the drone strikes are a Taliban recruiting tool.

At Tariq Khan's funeral, many mourners spoke out against the US, according to his uncle Noor Kalam.

But Washington is unlikely to heed the anger here. Under President Barack Obama, the use of drone missiles has soared - there's an attack on average every four days.

Increasingly, these remote-controlled killers are Washington's weapon of choice.

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