ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 24, 2008 -- The Pakistani and American militaries disagreed today over reports that a pilotless U.S. drone crashed in Pakistan under hostile fire.
If that claim is true it would be the first time a spy plane has crashed over Pakistan after thousands of flights designed to target senior al Qaeda and Taliban officials. And it would represent a major challenge for the U.S. in an area where the Pakistani military has been unable to defeat a growing insurgency.
On Tuesday night an intelligence official and a resident in the Angoor Adda area of South Waziristan told ABC News that a vigilante force of locals had brought a drone down with small arms fire.
On Wednesday the U.S. denied any of its drones went down in Pakistan, but did say an unmanned plane crashed in Afghanistan, 60 miles from the Pakistani border.
"Yesterday a UAV went down in western Paktika Province around 1:30 p.m. local time and it was as the result of engine issues. Once it went down it was immediately recovered," said Capt. Christian Patterson, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force 101 in Afghanistan.
But the Pakistani military insists a drone went down approximately one mile inside Pakistani territory, spokesman Major Murad Khan told ABC News.
He denied, however, that it was brought down by tribal fighters, saying there is "no indication that it was fired upon." Khan added that the military has the drone in its possession, but declined requests for pictures of the plane.
In the last few months, the U.S. has launched almost daily drone flights over Waziristan and other districts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The pilotless drones are considered the eyes and ears of the military, one of the most valuable intelligence tools it has in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Drones have fired at least six times inside Pakistan just since the beginning of September, killing what the U.S. called a senior al Qaeda leader in Pakistan, family members of a major militant group's leader and numerous Taliban fighters. It is those fighters who have launched increasingly sophisticated attacks on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, making 2008 the deadliest year there for both troops and civilians since the war began.
But the attacks have also killed civilians, and that has enraged the Pakistani public. The vast majority of people here strongly oppose the militants who launch suicide attacks throughout Pakistan, but they are also intensely defensive of their borders.
"We have our prestige, we have our sovereignty, and it should not be compromised at all," 27-year-old Adnan Saraj told ABC News at a high-end coffee shop in Islamabad. "America is saying OK, bomb here, bomb here. You know, this is not the way. It's [as if] we go to America and we bombed America."
The tribal vigilante groups -- known as "lashkars" -- are typically anti-Taliban, who often terrorize the local population. But after a Sept. 3 ground assault by U.S. forces in the same area where the drone reportedly crashed, tribal elders created a group of fighters to target foreign drones and soldiers coming into Pakistan from Afghanistan. And since that time, some claim the Pakistani military has looked the other way when it comes to the fighters' actions.
U.S. Spy Drone
A local resident of Angoor Adda in Pakistan described the drone as a "white plane flying low," and said it first appeared above the village at 5 a.m. local time, just as villagers were finishing their Ramadan breakfasts. A drone then appeared again at 5 p.m. At 10:30 p.m., it was brought down, the resident said.
The drones that fly above Pakistan are typically operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. Yesterday, a senior military official denied any report that one of its drones had crashed, telling ABC News that "I'm 99.9 percent sure it's not military."
An intelligence official also said nothing had happened to any CIA drones flying over Pakistan.
The U.S. has multiple drones in its arsenal, and it is not clear which type the local resident and Pakistani official were saying was brought down.