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U.S. pauses drone strikes in Pakistan

From Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
updated 3:34 PM EST, Sat December 24, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For six weeks, the U.S. hasn't conducted drone strikes in Pakistan, an official says
  • The revelation comes as the U.S. repairs its relationship with Pakistan
  • Ties were damaged when a U.S. airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last month

Washington (CNN) -- The U.S. acknowledgment of an ongoing six-week suspension of drone strikes in Pakistan came Saturday amid White House efforts to repair a relationship damaged when 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a U.S. airstrike last month.

An Obama administration official told CNN on Saturday that U.S. drone strikes haven't been conducted in Pakistan for about six weeks. The official declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the information.

Analysts say there could be three reasons for this pause, including political sensitivities in the wake of the November 26 plane and gunship strike. Other possible factors for the halt are poor weather and the ongoing need to develop precise information about new targets.

Though not openly acknowledged, the CIA conducts drone attacks inside Pakistan, and such operations the past several months have been targeting both high-value al Qaeda and Taliban targets, as well as operatives of the Haqqani network that have been striking U.S. forces inside Afghanistan.

But U.S.-Pakistan relations have eroded since the fatal airstrike, and ties became further strained by a dispute over what actually happened.

This month, a U.S. investigation found that American forces acted in self-defense after being fired upon in Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.

But Pakistan has said that it was the other way around -- that their forces were attacked first -- and intelligence sources doubled down on that version after the U.S. findings were announced.

The Pentagon report, based on about 60 interviews with coalition officials, "draws some connections that may not have been obvious in the immediate aftermath of the incident," said Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Clark, who led the investigation.

According to Clark, a coalition team heading toward an Afghan village near the Pakistani border came under attack from "very direct and heavy" machine gun fire, as well as to incoming mortars.

The ground commander responded with a "show of force," with an F-15 jet and an AC-130 gunship making their presence known and dropping flares illuminating the area, Clark said.

"This is key for the ground tactical leader's mindset in that there should be no doubt in anybody's minds that these are coalition forces in the area," he said.

When the firing and mortars didn't stop, the airstrike was called in.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials told CNN this month their country's investigation into the incident contradicts the findings of the U.S. report.

"Every Pakistani soldier knows that the Taliban doesn't have gunships and AC-130s," one high-ranking official close to the investigation said. "But that's not the point. The point is that they contend that we fired first. They're wrong. They fired first. We responded. And then they called in the air support, and proceeded to attack us at length."

"The (Department of Defense's) findings are strange, and contradict what we have communicated so far to the Americans. This report is not good news," a second intelligence official added.

The officials asked not to be named because they are not authorized to discuss security issues.

According to Clark, there were two separate engagements at the site where they originally came under fire, and a third one about 40 minutes later further north.

A series of miscommunications apparently kept the two sides from discovering that they were firing at friendlies.

Pakistan's military has repeatedly insisted the airstrike near the Afghan border was deliberate, and the Pakistani government ordered the American military to vacate an air base used to launch drone strikes.

The Defense Department said the findings of the U.S. investigation have been shared with the Pakistani and Afghan governments as well as key NATO leadership.

CNN's Mariano Castillo, Chelsea J. Carter and Michael Martinez contributed to this report.

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