By Rob Crilly and Alex Spillius

At least 54 militants were killed on Friday in three US drone strikes in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, the highest death toll this year.

The US has stepped up its use of drones this year to deny al-Qaeda and Taliban groups safe havens along the border with Afghanistan.

Last week two British converts to Islam died in a strike on Datta Khel in North Waziristan, according to Pakistani intelligence sources, making them the first white converts to be killed in the area.

There have been more than 100 drone attacks in 2010, more than double last year’s total.

Yesterday it also emerged that the CIA station chief in Pakistan had been forced to leave the country after his name was published in local papers in connection with a court case blaming the US for deaths connected to drones.

The latest strikes targeted the Khyber tribal region, an area largely untouched by the CIA’s covert programme of drone attacks.

The first attack destroyed two vehicles in the Tirah Valley, killing seven militants and wounding another nine. The men were believed to belong to the Pakistani Taliban, one of the country’s largest and deadliest insurgent groups.

Later, missiles hit a compound in Speen Darang village where the Lashkar-e-Islam, a Taliban affiliate known to be strong in Khyber, were meeting, killing 32 people, including commanders. The third strike took place in Narai Baba village and killed 15 militants, the officials said.

The drone programme is controversial in Pakistan, where politicians blame the attacks for killing civilians, stoking anti-western feeling and driving young men into the arms of Taliban recruiters.

Such is the sensitivity that the US refuses to acknowledge the use of drones and the Pakistan government publicly denies it has allowed American spies to launch attacks on its soil.

On Friday it emerged that the CIA had smuggled its station chief out of Pakistan after his cover was blown when he was named in a lawsuit seeking compensation for deaths allegedly caused by a drone attack.

The case, brought by a Pakistani journalist whose brother and son died in a drone strike last year, blamed Jonathan Banks, the CIA’s top spy in Pakistan, along with Leon Panetta, CIA director, and Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, for the deaths.

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