Pakistan wants strikes stopped ‘immediately'

The Pakistani government lodged a formal protest Wednesday against U.S. missile attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaida in the nation's tribal areas and told the American ambassador the strikes should be “stopped immediately.”

Ambassador Anne Patterson was summoned to the Foreign Ministry two days after a missile strike by a drone aircraft in South Waziristan killed 20 people, including several local Taliban commanders.

Last Friday, a similar strike hit a religious school in North Waziristan, killing eight people, all of them militant fighters, according to local residents. There have been at least 19 U.S. strikes since August.

The escalation of the attacks has riled the public, and the new government led by President Asif Ali Zardari has been under pressure to distance itself from what is perceived as a U.S.-led war on terror inside Pakistan.

Many Pakistanis, including representatives of political parties in the government coalition, say they believe an increase in suicide attacks is a result of the strikes.

The government has taken steps in the last week to address the public hostility. A two-week, on-and-off parliamentary debate on how to tackle terrorism resulted in a resolution last Thursday that called for talks with militants who renounced violence. The resolution also said the Pakistani army, which is fighting militants in the Bajaur region, should withdraw as soon as possible, and be replaced by civilian law enforcement.

On Tuesday, Afghan and Pakistani leaders pledged to seek talks with Taliban forces who lay down their weapons.

In contrast, the Bush administration has stepped up the missile strikes from the Predator pilotless aircraft after Taliban forces in the Pakistani tribal belt conducted increasingly lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration has also expressed concern that al-Qaida is using the ungoverned tribal areas to prepare attacks against the United States and Europe.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Patterson was told the missile strikes were “counterproductive” to Pakistan's efforts to win the allegiance of residents of the tribal areas.