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US ambassador faces legal threat after drone attack kills two boys

Activists in Pakistan have warned the US ambassador they intend to launch legal action against him and seek to have him charged over the alleged murder of two boys killed by a CIA drone strike.

One of the boys had attended a conference in Islamabad highlighting the human toll from the use of drones.

Reports in the US media published earlier this year, suggested the US ambassador is informed of the intended target of every strike and asked for his agreement. Subsequently, campaigners have written to Cameron Munter, saying that unless he explains his role, they will seek to have him charged as a co-conspirator in the deaths of 16-year-old Tariq Aziz and his cousin, Waheed Khan, who was 12. The boys were killed by a missile fired from a drone close to their home in North Waziristan on 31 October.

“I am considering initiating legal proceedings against you as a co-conspirator in Tariq and Waheed’s murder – for murder is the only word that can properly be applied to the act committed by CIA agents and their accomplices,” says the letter, dispatched by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, an Islamabad-based NGO. “However, I recognise that the US State Department has, at some level, been trying to rein in the CIA in its illegal war in the Pakistan border region, and I therefore want to be completely fair, and give you an opportunity to disavow what happened, and therefore potentially exclude yourself from any action that I might bring.”

The group’s director, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a high court lawyer, said he would give Mr Munter 14 days from the dispatch of the letter to respond, before taking legal action. He said he did not believe diplomatic immunity would apply to Mr Cameron’s purported actions, though he was ready to hear his argument. Last night, the US Embassy in Islamabad declined to comment.

The issue of drone strikes has become increasingly controversial in Pakistan, where their use has increased markedly since Barack Obama was elected US president. Operated by the CIA and a matter the US refuses to officially discuss, it is believed Pakistan’s leadership has grudgingly agreed to their use. Defenders of the drones claim they are responsible for “taking out” high value targets such as Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, killed by a missile fired from a drone in the summer of 2009.

But campaigners say hundreds of innocent civilians, dozens of them children, are the collateral damage of such a policy. They say information claiming that “suspected militants” are the victims of the strikes, is often erroneous. The day before Tariq and Waheed were killed, four chromite miners died in a missile strike.

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The two boys were hit by a missile just a couple of days after Tariq attended a conference organised by Mr Akbar, with the support of the British-based NGO Reprieve, to bring together witnesses and the families of those killed by drones. The teenage Tariq was an enthusiastic participant and agreed to take cameras back to North Waziristan to collect evidence of the impact of the drones. There has been speculation that Tariq, who mingled with international delegates, he was deliberately targeted.

“Tariq’s case is the one when outsiders got to see what the drone strikes are all about,” said Mr Akbar.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that following a review of its drone programme, the Obama administration gave a greater role the state department over the selection of targets, with the US Ambassador in Pakistan having the right to appeal – but not veto – each selection. Ironically, Mr Munter was one of those in favour of a more “judicious” use of drone strikes.

In his letter to Mr Munter, Mr Akbar adds: “Understanding that your orders come from above, it seems to me that it is equally unwise for the White House to make the US Ambassador in Pakistan a publicly-acknowledged cog in the machinery of killing children in Waziristan: how does the State Department think you are meant to do your job here in my country if it is known that you are daily making active decisions in this highly unpopular and criminal war against Pakistan? Such a decision would appear to be designed to confine you forever within the diplomatic enclave.”

Heart problems put president in hospital

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari has suffered a "cardiovascular episode" and has been hospitalised in Dubai, aides said. Mr Zardari was flown to the Gulf emirate on Tuesday.

The illness comes as Mr Zardari faces a growing political crisis at home. The civilian government's opponents have accused Mr Zardari and the former envoy to the US, Husain Haqqani, of being behind a plot to solicit support from the US to rein in Pakistan's generals. The news of Mr Zardari's departure briefly sparked short-lived rumours of a military coup.

Omar Waraich

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