Questions linger over control of Pakistan airfield used by U.S.

May 19, 2011 - 5:14 AM

ISLAMABAD (AP) — During a recent, rare briefing to parliament, a top Pakistani air force commander made a surprising claim: a remote southwestern airfield long suspected of housing U.S. drones used in missile strikes was actually under the control of the United Arab Emirates.

The comment stunned lawmakers and ordinary Pakistanis, who — in the wake of the May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in northwest Pakistan — had been questioning whether their nation has been surrendering its sovereignty.

But this week, a UAE official only added to the mystery by strongly denying to The Associated Press that the Gulf state has any operational role in the Shamsi airfield, although, the official, said wealthy Arabs have occasionally used it to fly to Pakistan on hunting expeditions.

The airfield — in the sparsely populated, rugged province of Baluchistan about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) southwest of Islamabad — has been used in the past by U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, although Americans working there have been asked to leave in recent months amid tensions between Pakistan and Washington, according to a Pakistani official.

Pakistan has long publicly denied that it allows the U.S. to use its territory to launch drones attacks — or that it supports the drone campaign at all. Saying Shamsi is controlled by the UAE may have been an attempt by Pakistan's military to gain some domestic political cover, but it has simply led to more confusion.

"The question arises: who authorized this surrender of sovereignty?" asked an editorial in The Daily Times, an English-language paper.

The unusual, private military briefing last week was about the bin Laden raid. Air Marshal Mohammad Hassan insisted that no drones used in missile strikes took off from Pakistani soil. But he also said Shamsi was not a Pakistan Air Force facility and that it was handed to the UAE during the 1990s, according to lawmakers who requested anonymity because the session was supposed to be confidential.

At least one lawmaker said that during questioning about the base, air force officials said U.S. surveillance drones — but not armed ones — used the Shamsi field. Local media also reported that claim.

It's not unheard of for wealthy Arabs to lease property in Pakistan, which has tried to build alliances with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries over the years in bids to shore up its standing among Muslim nations and gain allies in the event of tensions with neighboring India.

The UAE official told the AP that the Arab state helped Pakistan build the airfield decades ago but has never had control of it and does not lease the property.

The extent of its involvement today is that UAE sheiks and others may use the airfield for "recreational purposes" such as hunting expeditions, the official said. Those private, civilian planes that come in for hunting and falconry trips must get clearance from Pakistani aviation authorities and file flight plans, according to the UAE official.

The base "was never operated nor controlled by the UAE," said the official, who had been briefed on the subject by the Gulf state's Foreign Ministry and requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject.

The U.S. used the Shamsi field as a forward staging point in the initial period after it invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. In January 2002, a U.S. military tanker plane crashed near the area, killing all seven Marines on board.

Since 2008, when the U.S. began a sustained campaign of missile strikes against militant targets in Pakistan's tribal regions, reports have surfaced that the drones used in the attacks were taking off from Shamsi.

Pakistan's The News, an English-language daily, and the Times of London published a Google Earth image purportedly showing three U.S. drones at Shamsi as early as 2006. Citing unnamed U.S. officials, The New York Times has also reported that employees of the security company previously known as Blackwater worked at Shamsi to load missiles and bombs onto American drones.

But Pakistani officials have been tightlipped about Shamsi, which, like much of the Baluchistan region, is largely off limits to reporters. Attempts to get comment from the Pakistan Air Force and the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority were not immediately successful this week.

A U.S. military official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said there are presently no U.S. military personnel at Shamsi. But he could not speak for the CIA or contractors used by any other U.S. agencies. The CIA rarely discusses the covert drone program.

At the end of the marathon session in Pakistan's Parliament on Saturday, lawmakers passed a resolution warning against future unilateral U.S. raids and also condemned the drone strikes, which target al-Qaida and the Taliban in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

The resolution called on the government to consider cutting off U.S. and NATO supply lines that run through Pakistan if the missile strikes continue.

Just two days later on Monday, the U.S. launched two missile strikes, killing seven people in North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region home to several militant groups fighting Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.

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Murphy reported from Cairo. Associated Press Writer Chris Brummitt contributed to this report.