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Pakistan drone death tally surprises

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 9:21 p.m.

ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani government said on Wednesday that 67 of 2,227 people killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2008 were civilians, a surprisingly low figure that sparked criticism from groups that have investigated the attacks.

The number, which was provided by the Ministry of Defense to the Senate, is lower than past government calculations and estimates by independent organizations that have gone as high as 300. The ministry said 317 drone strikes in the past five years have killed 2,160 militants.

The attacks, which mainly target suspected militants near the northwestern border with Afghanistan, are widely unpopular in Pakistan because they are viewed as violating the country's sovereignty and killing too many civilians. The Pakistani government criticizes the drone program in public, even though it is known to have secretly supported at least some of the strikes in the past.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pressed President Obama to end the attacks in a visit to the White House last week, but the United States considers the attacks vital to its battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban and gave no indication it was willing to abandon them.

Defense Ministry officials could not be reached for comment, and the statement posted on the Senate's website did not give any indication why the number was so much lower than past government calculations and outside estimates.

A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said this month the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by the attacks in the country since they started in 2004.

Emmerson called on the government to explain the apparent discrepancy, saying the figures provided by the Foreign Ministry since 2004 indicated a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.

“If the true figures for civilian deaths are significantly lower, then it is important that this should now be made clear and the apparent discrepancy explained,” Emmerson said in an email.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation put the figure at 185.

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