Claim likely to cause widespread surprise in a country where the remote controlled aircraft are widely hated

Just 67 civilians were killed by US drone strikes since 2008 according to figures released by Pakistan's military.

The figure amounts to just 3% of the total number killed and is strikingly lower than tallies compiled by organisations that track drone attacks through media reports, which claim many hundreds of civilians have been killed.

The information, released by Pakistan's Ministry of Defence to a parliamentary inquiry, also said no civilians were killed in 2012 and 2013. The military said 2,160 Islamic militants were killed since 2008.

The claim is likely to cause widespread surprise in a country where the remote controlled aircraft are widely hated, in large part because of the popular belief that they kill many civilians.

It also puzzled analysts, many of whom have long assumed Pakistan has deliberately stoked anti-drone sentiment by publicising claims of killings of civilians.

"It is a very interesting turn in this whole debate," said Ayesha Siddiqa, an academic who specialises in scrutinising Pakistan's powerful military establishment. "It's going to play havoc with all those [anti-drone campaigners] who have been arguing that drones kill a lot of people and therefore must be stopped."

Basic information about the number of civilians and militants killed by drones is controversial and highly politicised in Pakistan.

The US refuses to provide information about individual strikes, which it says are secret, although officials do claim drones kill very few civilians.

Independent investigators are unable to operate in the dangerous tribal borderlands of Waziristan where nearly all drone strikes take place, while locals are often prevented from observing drone damage by militants.

There is also a risk of eye witnesses and relatives of the dead coming under pressure from militants to provide false or inaccurate information, a recent report on drones by Amnesty International warned.

Despite the difficulties, some groups have attempted to assess drone strikes by collating information published by media reports, although such reports were criticised for being potentially highly misleading in a report by the Columbia Law School last year.

According to the London based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 300 civilians have been killed by drones since 2008.

Distinguishing civilians from those engaged in hostilities is also difficult and the latest figures from Pakistan may reflect a broad definition of "militant".

After each strike Pakistan has lodged forthright public complaints with the US, despite substantial evidence that it has secretly co-operated with the CIA-led programme.

One high-profile anti-drone campaigner, a lawyer called Shahzad Akbar, claimed the military was bowing to US pressure with the surprisingly low figures.

"Maybe it is in return for the $1.6bn the US has agreed to give," he said. "It is an absolutely absurdity, we all know it is not really true figures." He pointed instead to higher figures given by government officials to a hearing at the Peshawar high court.

Relations between Pakistan and the US have been improving in recent months. The US president, Barack Obama, held a White House meeting with Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, last week. Despite Sharif's claim that he would raise the drone issue, there was no mention of it in the two leaders' joint statement.

Senior officials have hinted that an understanding has been reached with the US which will see drone strikes come to an end in the near future.

However, late on Wednesday it was reported that a drone struck a militant compound near Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, killing three insurgents.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

[Image via Agence France-Presse]