BEIJING: Campaigners and families who lost their loved ones in controversial American covert drone missions in Pakistan have strongly disputed the claim by the United States its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) only killed 116 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015, the Chinese media has reported.

Shahzad Akbar, a senior lawyer, who is leading the legal battle for the civilians killed in the US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions, says the data collected from the media reports and people on the ground put the civilian death toll at over 3,000, Xinhua news agency reported.

During exclusive talks with Xinhua, Akbar also mentioned a 2013 court's judgment in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in which the judge mentioned deaths of 1,490 civilians in the US drone attacks in the Waziristan tribal region.

"The figures were shared with the Peshawar High Court by the officials in North and South Waziristan which had been the focus of drone strikes for years," the lawyer said.

Akbar mentioned at least three US drone strikes that had killed many civilians, including nearly 80 children in an attack on a religious school in the Bajaur tribal area in October 2006, 60 more who were killed when drones rained missiles down on a funeral in South Waziristan in June 2009 and 40 who were killed when US missiles struck a "Jirga" or assembly of tribal elders in North Waziristan in March 2011.

"These are just a few of the major US drone strikes which killed hundreds of civilians, including children. So I would say that the latest White House figure of up to 116 civilian casualties is ridiculous and just a political gimmick," said Akbar, who was once denied a US visa, which stopped him from attending an International Drone Summit in Washington in 2012 where he was scheduled to speak on behalf of the family members of civilian victims of drone strikes.

Drone strikes have always been controversial for Pakistani officials, who describe them as a violation of the country's sovereignty. Pakistanis also believe the strikes had always complicated their anti-terror campaign because civilian deaths always incense the local people.

Pakistan has raised the issue at international forums including the United Nations, however the US has never listened to Pakistan's concerns. The US strike that killed the Afghan Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Balochistan province on 21st May, proved to be disastrous for diplomatic efforts to start the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Further ambiguities remain even after the US released its erroneous civilian casualties figure as no details have been shared with the media about the identity of the slain people in Pakistan and other countries, and no one knows how exactly the US separate militants from the civilians.

"I think US President Barack Obama is concerned about his legacy because he signed death warrants for the extra-judicial murders of over 4,000 people. The American leader has in fact used armed drones for assassinations," the Pakistani lawyer said.

Families who lost members in the US drone attacks in Pakistan, are also surprised at the White House's incomprehensibly low number of civilian casualties in the highly controversial drone campaign and some offered possible reasons.

Abdul Karim Khan, a native of Mirali in North Waziristan, who lost his son Zahinullah and brother Asif Iqbal, to a December 2009 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drone strike and has been involved in a legal battle to seek justice, says the casualties figure of 116 could be just "men wanted" by the US but the thousands of others who died were as a result of the covert operations and were civilians.

Both of Khan's family members had died while sitting at home with other family members.

"I strongly believe the American report on the civilian casualties is a lie, as I myself have seen hundreds of deaths of local tribesmen in just my area alone," Khan told Xinhua by the phone from the northwestern city of Mardan, where he lives as an internally displaced person along with his family.

Hundreds of thousands had been displaced in North Waziristan due to the Taliban control and later when the security forces launched a major offensive in 2014 to clear the area of the Taliban and other militant groups. As the area is almost been under the control of the forces, the repatriation of the displaced persons is underway and will be completed this year.

Khan had petitioned the Islamabad High Court for the registration of a murder case against the former CIA station Chief in Pakistan, Jonathan Banks, for his alleged role in a surgical strike that killed the family members of an anti-drone activist.

In April 2015, the High Court had directed the Islamabad police to register the case against the CIA station chief.

"It is regrettable that the US embassy in Islamabad has never submitted any reply to our legal notices, which means American officials cannot defend themselves in a court of law. We have been involved in legal battles since 2010 and will continue," he said.

As the CIA-led drone campaign is shrouded in secrecy, the US officials had long been silent over the issue and it is for the first time the White House issued the number of some of its victims in view of the growing criticism of the drone campaign.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which provides a full data set of all known US drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, says the strikes have also killed more than 400 civilians. In 2015 it also started monitoring international airstrikes in Afghanistan.

"There is no doubt US drone attacks have killed civilians in Pakistan, though it appears from our monitoring that the attacks have killed far fewer in recent years compared with levels seen in 2010 and before," Jack Serle, a reporter for the Bureau, told Xinhua.

"But the trouble is far too often we do not know who has been killed by drones, so we don't know if they're an innocent civilian in the wrong place at the wrong time, if they're a terrorist mastermind plotting attacks in Islamabad, Kabul or the West, or if they're just a driver who had no choice but throw in their lot with some criminal gang in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas," he said on 5th July.

As Pakistan has been critical of the US drone strikes, it has raised the issue at international forums including the United Nations, calling for a halt to the attacks.

On 2nd July, Pakistan demanded an immediate cessation of drone strikes in its territory, terming them a violation of "territorial integrity and sovereignty of states."

Pakistan's Permanent Representative to United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi, told the UN General Assembly that the extraterritorial use of armed drones or remotely-piloted aircraft is a violation of international and humanitarian laws and also a fuel for violent extremism.

Last month, Pakistan urged the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to respond to loss of lives, human rights violations and breach of its territorial sovereignty because of drone attacks.

Speaking at a meeting of the council in Geneva, Pakistan's permanent representative Tehmina Janjua pointed out that the drone strikes were also a violation of the UN charter and international law, including human rights and humanitarian law.