• Contractor said to be helping to load missiles
• US denies controversial company is in country
The US contractor Blackwater is operating in Pakistan at a secret CIA airfield used for launching drone attacks, according to a former US official, despite repeated government denials that the company is in the country.
The official, who had direct knowledge of the operation, said that employees with Blackwater, now renamed Xe Services, patrol the area round the Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan province.
He also confirmed that Blackwater employees help to load laser-guided Hellfire missiles on to CIA-operated drones that target al-Qaida members suspected of hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions, confirming information that surfaced in the US media in the summer.
The secretive base at Shamsi is a key element in the CIA co-ordinated missile strikes that have hit more than 40 targets in the past year. Officials in Washington said that a drone attack on Wednesday killed a senior al-Qaida figure. The officials declined to name the individual, other than to say it was not Osama bin Laden. It is the first time in almost a year that the US has claimed to have successfully targeted a senior al-Qaida figure.
The controversy over Blackwater stems mainly from its work in Iraq and Afghanistan that raised questions about the US use of private contractors in war zones. Several cases against the company are pending in US courts over violent incidents, including a 2007 Baghdad shooting spree.