ISLAMABAD -- The Pakistani government has the right to shoot down U.S. drones if Washington ignores warnings to halt the "illegal" aerial attacks, a Pakistani court ruled Thursday.
"The government of Pakistan and its security forces shall ensure that in future such drone strikes are not conducted and carried out within the sovereign territory of Pakistan," said a two-judge panel led by Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan.
Khan said in the 22-page judgement that the drone attacks carried out against "a handful of alleged militants who are not engaged in combat with the U.S. authorities or forces" breached international laws so they were "absolutely illegal and blatant violations" of national sovereignty.
The court also declared the drone strikes "a war crime" and directed the Pakistani government to request the United Nations form a tribunal to investigate and render a final verdict on whether the airstrikes constitute war crimes.
The judgment decided a set of identical petitions challenging the drone campaign against Islamist militants entrenched in Pakistan's tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
The judges said the United States committed a "serial killing" of civilians in the North and South Waziristan tribal districts that began in 2008. They cited the local administration as saying 1,449 civilians had been killed and 335 critically injured through the end of 2012.
"The civilian casualties ... [are] an uncondonable crime on the part of U.S. authorities, including the CIA, and it is held so," said the judgment, which described President Barack Obama, the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency as the "decision-making troika" behind the drone campaign.
Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a human rights activist and one of the lawyers for the victims of drone attacks, described the verdict as a landmark.
The Pakistan government's previous statements that the drone strikes are illegal were considered just an opinion, but now the same judgement has been handed down from a court, making the case much stronger, he said.
"If even now the drone strikes continue, at least we will have the right to approach the judiciary, and the court itself has the inherent jurisdiction to prosecute the federal government, prime minister or the president for contempt," Akbar said.
Pakistan publicly condemns the drone campaign, describing it as illegal and counterproductive to its own fight against militants, but many analysts and observers said they believe the strikes are carried out with Islamabad's tacit approval.
Last month, Pakistan's former military strongman Pervez Musharraf told the U.S. broadcaster CNN that his country secretly approved a few U.S. drone strikes.
No definitive death toll from the strikes is available, but hundreds of Islamist rebels as well as civilians have been reported killed since the first U.S. drone strike in 2004.