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Discrepancies Surrounding South Waziristan Drone Strike

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Friday, November 30, 2012 at 2:00 PM

As I posted in my news roundup yesterday, a drone strike in South Waziristan killed two militants, according to the Express Tribune and Dawn. This seemed like an interesting real-time case study for media coverage of civilian casualty counts and militant deaths—a subject which Ben and I have been thinking about since Ben discussed it here with Glenn Greenwald, and here with Gabor Rona of Human Rights First. So I spent a few hours yesterday evening scouring the internet to discover what information was available surrounding the first strike the U.S. has conducted in Pakistan since the presidential election. Bottom line: It is fraught with discrepancies and outright contradictions, and it gives a good sense of why the number of civilian casualties in general is such a disputed subject.

As of this writing, no U.S. news agency has reported on the strike. The only non-Pakistani media account I found was from Agence France Presse, which reported no casualties:

“Two or three militants were walking in a cultivated field. A US drone fired two missiles but no one was hurt,” a security official based in Peshawar told AFP on condition of anonymity. A second security official in South Waziristan confirmed the drone strike and told AFP that “so far” there was no report of any damage.

The Express Tribune, which both reported two deaths, says the following:

An unmanned US drone strike killed two militants in the Lawa Kanda area of South Waziristan on Thursday, a security official told The Express Tribune.

. . .

The security official said that the drone targeted a vehicle killing one person instantly and wounding another – who later succumbed to his injuries. The vehicle was also completely damaged.

A local resident, who was close to the targeted area, told The Express Tribune that he heard a blast which was followed by dust. He also saw two drones flying over the area at the time of the attack.

Dawn, which also reported two deaths, says:

Two suspected militants were killed in a US drone attack inside Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region, DawnNews reported on Thursday.

. . .

According to local sources, the attack came late afternoon and was targeted at a house, resulting in the death of two suspected militants.

Most English-language Pakistani news organizations, by contrast, are reporting that three people were killed and four were injured: The News International and GeoTV say that “at least three people were killed and four others injured.” The News Tribe says the strike “killed three people while injuring four others.” News Pakistan also claims that three people were injured. (Most of the language in this article is taken directly from the Express Tribune story, except that the number “one” is changed to “two.” Some language is also taken from The News International story.)

Other English-language Pakistani news sources say four were killed and four injured, such as The Nation and Pakistan Today. And SANA (South Asian News Agency) says that “At least four persons were martyred and four others were injured in result of US drone strike.” It goes on to cite the AFP story, but calls it “a foreign news agency.”

None of the stories name the dead or provide any information about who they were.  Some news sources say they were “militants,” while most of the Pakistani sources say “people” or “persons.” The only point on which all of the news reports agree is that the strike occurred in the Shin Warsak village about 20km west of Wana, one of the main towns in South Waziristan.

There are even completely different accounts of what the missiles actually hit—some accounts say a vehicle, some say a house, and some say a field.

I will keep monitoring reporting of the incident and report back if consensus begins to emerge or if more details as to whom the drones hit come out .

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