ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An unmanned Pakistani aircraft killed three suspected terrorists Monday, marking the first time that the country’s military has used drone technology on the battlefield, officials said.
In March, Pakistan’s military declared that it had successfully armed an indigenously produced drone, which it calls the Burraq, with a laser-guided missile. But the weapon had not been used in combat until now, officials said.
Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, a spokesman for the military, said in a brief statement that three “high-profile terrorists” were killed in the strike in the Shawal Valley in northwestern Pakistan. Bajwa did not identify them but said details would be forthcoming.
With the announcement, Pakistan appears to have joined a handful of nations that use armed drones as instruments of war.
Earlier this year, the New America Foundation said there is evidence that eight other countries — the United States, South Africa, France, Nigeria, Britain, Iran, Israel and China — have placed weapons onto unmanned aircraft. At the time, the foundation said the United States, Britain and Israel were the only nations that had fired a missile from a drone during a military operation.
Pakistan’s drone program has been rapidly accelerating since it was announced in late 2013.
The Pakistani military initially said it would use drones only for surveillance. But it abandoned that stance this year in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on an army-run school that killed about 150 students and teachers.
Now, it appears, both Pakistan and the United States will be carrying out drone strikes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It was not clear whether Pakistan and the United States will coordinate their use of armed drones.
Since 2004, the United States has carried out hundreds of drone strikes on Pakistani soil, targeting al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups.
Those strikes, the latest of which occurred late last week, had been deeply unpopular with the Pakistani public. Some of that opposition has subsided as Pakistan’s military began its latest offensive against militants.
Since that operation started last summer, officials say they have cleared Islamist militants from much of the country’s tribal belt. But there are signs that the army is running into a tougher-than-expected battle in the Shawal Valley.
In July, the army announced that it had begun a final assault on the valley, which straddles North and South Waziristan and includes a network of trails and tunnels to Afghanistan. The army was met with fierce resistance.
For much of August, the military appeared to have relied on repeated airstrikes in a bid to weaken militant positions in the valley. On Aug. 20, however, the military again announced that a ground operation was underway in the valley.
Pakistan’s decision to introduce armed drones on the battlefield could unnerve arch-rival India and neighboring Afghanistan.
So far, the Pakistani military has not announced its doctrine for using drones on home soil or specified whether they also could be deployed for cross-border operations.
Pakistan has not released details about the range of its drones, but some analysts estimate that the aircraft can fly about 75 miles.
There is also uncertainty about what procedures Pakistan’s military has in place to limit civilian casualties during a drone strike. Some foreigners kidnapped by militants in Pakistan or Afghanistan, for example, are feared to still be held captive in Pakistan.
In January, a U.S. drone strike in the Shawal Valley mistakenly killed two foreigners kidnapped by al-Qaeda, including American Warren Weinstein.
On Monday, several residents of Pakistan’s tribal belt said they will continue to oppose drone strikes, which they blame for scores of civilian causalities over the past decade.
“Many times the drone has missed the target and innocent people have been hit,” said Malik Ghulam Khan Wazir, a tribal elder from North Waziristan. “In the past, we protested against America, but now against whom do we protest?”