ISLAMABAD – The Pakistani government said Wednesday that 3 percent of 2,227 people killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2008 were civilians, a surprisingly low figure that sparked criticism from groups that have investigated death tolls from the attacks.
The number, which was provided by the Ministry of Defense to the Senate, is much lower than past government calculations and estimates by independent organizations that have gone as high as 300, or about 13 percent. The ministry said 317 drone strikes have killed 2,160 Islamic militants and 67 civilians since 2008.
The attacks, which mainly target suspected Islamic militants near the northwestern border with Afghanistan, are widely unpopular in Pakistan because they are viewed as violating the country's sovereignty and killing too many civilians. The Pakistani government regularly criticizes the drone program in public, even though it is known to have secretly supported at least some of the strikes in the past.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pressed President Barack Obama to end the attacks in a visit to the White House last week, but the U.S. considers the attacks vital to its battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban and gave no indication it was willing to abandon them.
Defense Ministry officials could not be reached for comment, and the statement posted on the Senate's website did not give any indication why the number was so much lower than past government calculations and outside estimates.
A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said earlier this month that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by the attacks in the country since they started in 2004.
Emmerson called on the government to explain the apparent discrepancy, saying the figures provided by the Foreign Ministry since 2004 indicated a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.
"If the true figures for civilian deaths are significantly lower, then it is important that this should now be made clear, and the apparent discrepancy explained," Emmerson said in an email.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation put the figure at 185. These estimates are often compiled based on media reports about the attacks.
Pakistan's overall death toll is lower than some other totals, although not to the same degree as its figure for civilians. The New America Foundation registered 2,651 people killed in the same period, while the Long War Journal website has 2,493.
The danger of traveling to the remote tribal region targeted by the strikes makes it difficult to compile an accurate number of civilian casualties.
The U.S. rarely speaks publicly about the CIA-run drone program in Pakistan because it is classified. But some American officials have insisted that the strikes have killed very few civilians and that estimates from the Pakistani government and independent organizations are exaggerated.
Amnesty International called on the U.S. to investigate reports of civilians killed and wounded by drone strikes in Pakistan in a report released earlier this month that provided new details about the alleged victims of the attacks, including a 68-year-old woman killed while farming with her grandchildren.
Mamana Bibi's grandchildren told the London-based rights group that she was killed by missile fire on Oct. 24, 2012, as she was collecting vegetables in a family field in the North Waziristan tribal area, a major militant sanctuary near the Afghan border. Bibi's relatives testified before members of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.
The Amnesty report also cited witnesses as saying that a volley of missiles hit a tent where 18 men with no links to militant groups were eating after work, then a second struck those who came to help the wounded on July 6, 2012 in North Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence officials at the time identified the dead as suspected militants.
In its latest statement, the Pakistani government said 21 civilians were killed in 2008, nine in 2009, two in 2010 and 35 in 2011. But it insisted no civilians have been killed since then.
Amnesty researcher Mustafa Qadri said he was skeptical about the government figures because it conflicted with their research and indicated a failure of the state to adequately investigate alleged civilian casualties.
The London-based human rights group, Reprieve, called the government's civilian casualty figures inaccurate, based on higher numbers it said were submitted to the Peshawar High Court by the top official in North Waziristan earlier this year.
An Associated Press study in early 2012 of 10 of the deadliest drone strikes in North Waziristan over the preceding 18 months found that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent – at least 138 – were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single strike.
The Interior Ministry also said Wednesday that "terrorist" attacks have killed 12,404 people and wounded 26,881 others since 2002, although these figures were disputed by some senators. The government has been battling an insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to topple the country's democratic system and impose Islamic law. It was not clear if the figure involved only attacks on civilians, or also attacks on security forces.
A roadside bomb killed five soldiers and wounded three others Wednesday in the South Waziristan tribal area, the Pakistani Taliban's main sanctuary before the army conducted a large ground offensive in 2009, said military officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military policy.
Also Wednesday, a bomb exploded in a market in southwestern Pakistan, killing two people and wounding at least 20 others, said police official Ahmad Raza. The attack occurred in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. The province is home to both Islamic militants and separatists who have waged a low-level insurgency against the government for decades.
Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar contributed to this report from Quetta, Pakistan.