US puts drone strikes inside Pak on hold:Report

Washington: The US has put its covert air campaign that targets al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan`s tribal agencies "on hold", in the wake of strained ties between the two countries.

Several US intelligence officials involved in the CIA programme, which uses unmanned Predator and Reaper strike aircraft, more commonly called drones, said the strikes were on hold due to fears that an attack at this point in time would further damage the already fragile relationship, the The Long War Journal reported.

But the Journal said that officials would consider launching strikes if there was a confirmed sighting of a high-profile target. "We may strike soon if an extremely high value target pops up, but otherwise there is hesitation to pull the trigger right now," the intelligence official said.

The official refused to say which terror leaders would cause the US to reconsider the pause, and attack.

The drone strikes have stopped since mid-November, after the pace of strikes began picking up during the previous two months. The last US strike was on November 16, said the Journal which tracks the strikes on its website.

This is one of the longest pauses in the programme since CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in what he claimed was self-defence early this year.

The relations between the two countries have been deteriorating over the past two years as the US has ramped up the drone programme while accusing Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and other terror groups.

The Raymond Davis affair and the US raid that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan earlier this year further inflamed the Pakistanis. But the November 26 US airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani troops in Mohmand has led to Pakistan`s shutting down the Chaman and Torkham (Khyber Pass) border crossings to NATO supply convoys.

The Pakistanis have also shut down the US drone base in Shamsi in remote area in Balochistan, but the Journal, quoting US officials, said that Washington retained capabilities to mount strikes from the Afghan soil.

The Journal said the pause in the drone strikes, and Pakistan`s vow to shoot down the US aircraft, threaten the Obama administration`s strategy against al-Qaeda.

The administration has elevated counter-terrorism efforts, of which the drone strikes are the premier tool, over counterinsurgency as the primary means to defeat al-Qaeda and allied terror groups.

If the US is unable to strike in Pakistan`s tribal areas, the terror groups headquartered there will again be able to operate unfettered, it added.