Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistan on Monday strongly denounced airstrikes from Afghanistan-based NATO helicopters that killed more than 50 insurgents in Pakistan over the weekend, warning it would have to consider "response options" if it happened again.
Though the U.S. routinely carries out unmanned drone strikes against Al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban militants in Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghan border, airstrikes from U.S. or NATO manned aircraft on targets in Pakistan have been rare.
U.S. military officials say their rules of engagement allow NATO aircraft to act in self-defense against insurgents who have launched attacks against NATO or Afghan forces from Pakistani territory. The U.S. has said in the past that Pakistan has agreed to those rules, though Pakistani officials on Monday denied that such an agreement exists.
NATO carried out the airstrikes Saturday after militants attacked a remote Afghan security outpost near the border in Khowst province, NATO officials said. The small installation, known as Combat Outpost Narizah, received "direct and indirect fire from the Pakistan side of the border," a NATO statement said.
Though NATO officials did not say which militant group carried out the attack, it was launched from Pakistan's North Waziristan region, the base of operations for the Afghan Taliban wing known as the Haqqani network.
Two NATO helicopters flew into Pakistani territory and killed 49 insurgents, said U.S. Capt. Ryan Donald, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Afghanistan. "The helicopters responded to the attack, acting in self-defense," Donald said. "They briefly flew into Pakistan, briefly engaged the insurgents and returned."
Later Saturday, two other NATO helicopters flying in the area were fired upon by insurgents on Pakistani soil, and returned fire, killing at least four more militants, Donald said. After the attacks, NATO officials informed Pakistani authorities about what had happened, Donald said.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's statement stressed that only airpower was used. "At no time during the engagement did ground forces cross into Pakistan territory," the statement said.
On Monday, six more militants were killed in an ISAF helicopter attack in the Kurram region along the border, Reuters reported. An ISAF spokesman said it was "near the border," rather than in Pakistan.
Pakistan reacted angrily to news of Saturday's airstrikes. In a statement issued by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, spokesman Abdul Basit called the strikes a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.
"These incidents are a clear violation and breach of the U.N. mandate under which ISAF operates," Basit said in the statement. "There are no agreed 'hot pursuit' rules…. In the absence of immediate corrective measures, Pakistan will be constrained to consider response options."
Though Pakistan has tacitly allowed the U.S. to launch unmanned drone missile strikes against Taliban and Haqqani militants in the country's tribal areas, it has firmly said it would not allow foreign forces to carry out combat operations on its territory.
In June 2008, Pakistani authorities accused the U.S. of dispatching warplanes into Pakistani territory and launching an airstrike that killed 11 members of the Frontier Corps, a Pakistani paramilitary force that patrols the tribal areas. The U.S. expressed regret over the incident but countered that it had been acting in self-defense after its troops had come under attack from Taliban fighters.
The new airstrikes could further strain Washington's fragile alliance with the Pakistani military, which has repeatedly balked at launching an offensive against Haqqani network fighters who use North Waziristan as a base from which to launch attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. This summer's catastrophic floods have forced Pakistan to divert thousands of troops to help flood victims cope with the disaster, making military action in North Waziristan unlikely anytime soon.
As a result, the U.S. had ratcheted up its drone strike campaign against militants in the tribal areas, focusing most of the attacks on suspected Haqqani strongholds and compounds in North Waziristan. So far this month, the U.S. has carried out 20 drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions, killing dozens of suspected militants. The latest attack occurred Monday, when a drone-fired missile killed four people near the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali.
Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.