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US defends unmanned drone attacks after harsh UN report

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The campaign has included some 135 attacks in northwest Pakistan since 2004 which have killed between 944 and 1,398 individuals, about 30 percent of whom were "non-militants," according to the New American Foundation, which derived its numbers from media reports.

The US has been cagey about publicly discussing its drone attacks, particularly those in Pakistan. But the assassination campaign has become such public knowledge that President Obama joked about drones during the White House Correspondents' Dinner, saying to a boy band in the audience: "Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming.”

Pakistan has publicly objected to the killings but its military has provided target information and approved of the attacks in at least some cases.

In his report (pdf) released Wednesday, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston criticized the secrecy of the CIA's drone attacks, writing they had resulted in "the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined license to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum." Remote attacks also led to a "risk of developing a 'Playstation' mentality to killing," he wrote.

Alston urged US officials to "publicly identify the rules of international law they consider to provide a basis for any targeted killings they undertake" and to "specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture."

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