US personnel have taken steps to evacuate a remote airfield in Pakistan that had been used for staging classified drone flights directed against militants, US and Pakistani sources said on Monday.
Following a NATO airstrike last month during which 24 Pakistani troops were killed accidentally, Pakistan ordered US personnel to vacate the airfield at Shamsi in its Baluchistan region by Sunday.
After receiving this ultimatum — which initially was transmitted to US President Barack Obama’s administration in the form of a press release — the US began preparing for a possible move of US personnel out of the facility.
On Monday, a Pakistani military official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said: “There is some activity happening at the base because of the deadline given to the Americans. They are moving some equipment and vacating personnel.”
Two other sources close to the Pakistani and US governments confirmed that US personnel had begun marshaling personnel and equipment to be moved out of the base in the event the Pakistanis do not relent on their demand.
“We’re not going to comment specifically on Shamsi, but we will comply with the Pakistani requests,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said on Monday.
The Pakistani airbase had been used by US forces, including the CIA, to stage elements of a clandestine US counterterrorism operation to attack suspected encampments of militants associated with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan’s home-grown Haqqani network, using unmanned drone aircraft armed with missiles.
Obama stepped up the drone campaign after he took office. US officials say it has produced major successes in decimating the central leadership of al-Qaeda and putting associated militant groups on the defensive.
Pakistani authorities started threatening US personnel with eviction from the Shamsi base in the wake of the raid in May in which US commandos killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout near Islamabad without notifying Pakistani officials in advance.
In an attempt to mollify the Pakistanis, US authorities began limiting drone flights from the base to nonlethal surveillance flights. However, in the wake of the latest deadly NATO air strike, Pakistani authorities renewed and stepped up pressure on the US to vacate the base entirely.