Pakistan's army chief has condemned a US drone attack that killed more than three dozen people, saying the missiles struck a peaceful meeting of tribal elders.
Civilians and police were among those killed when missiles fired by a drone ploughed into a militant training compound in Datta Khel town, 40 kilometres west of Miranshah, the main town in tribal North Waziristan.
"Chief of army staff General Ashfaq Kayani strongly condemns the Predator strike carried out today in North Waziristan resulting into loss of innocent lives," the military said in a statement.
"It is highly regrettable that a jirga [council] of peaceful citizens including elders of the area was carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life." it said.
Initially, Pakistani intelligence officials said the unmanned aircraft fired four missiles into a building where dozens of suspected militants were meeting yesterday, killing more than 30 of them in a strike close to the Afghan border.
The strikes took place in an area regarded as the main sanctuary for al Qa'eda and Taliban fighters along the Afghan border, said the officials.
The roughly three dozen suspected militants at the meeting were allied with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful Pakistani Taliban commander in the area, who has focused his efforts on fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan, the officials said. The insurgents were discussing plans to send new groups of fighters across the border.
The most senior militant killed in the attack was Sharabat Khan, Bahadur's top commander for the Datta Khel area, who was leading the meeting, the officials said. Several foreign militants were also killed, they said.
The United States began firing missiles at militant targets in Pakistan in 2004, but the pace of the attacks picked up dramatically in 2008. Last year, there were about 120 strikes, which are believed to be carried out by unmanned drone aircraft either from Afghanistan or from inside Pakistan. There have been about 20 so far this year.
Most of the strikes this year and last year have been in North Waziristan.
Washington does not acknowledge firing the missiles and reporters are barred from visiting the area, meaning it is hard to verify who is being killed. Pakistani leaders formally protest against the strikes, but its intelligence agencies are widely believed to co-operate in some of them.