Pakistani activists in Lahore pay tribute to soldiers killed in cross-border… (Arif Ali, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Pakistani officials acknowledged Thursday that their troops fired machine guns and artillery in the direction of U.S. helicopters that were attacking them in a deadly incident on the Afghan-Pakistani border last month, but they said the Americans fired first, and they insisted that no militants were in the area.
The U.S. is investigating the Nov. 26 incident, in which 24 soldiers were killed, the deadliest single toll of Pakistani forces slain by NATO troops since the Afghanistan conflict began 10 years ago.
Presenting their version of events to reporters at their embassy in Washington, Pakistani defense officials and diplomats reiterated their claim that U.S. attack helicopters continued to strafe two Pakistani outposts for at least an hour after NATO had been notified that it was attacking friendly forces. NATO promised to stop the attack but did not, a senior Pakistani defense official said.
The Pakistani soldiers were justified in returning fire, the official said.
"Can you take away the right of self-defense?" he asked.
The incident has provoked "a sense of outrage" among Pakistan's military, the official said, leading Pakistan to block NATO supply lines that had been used to carry fuel and other crucial supplies to coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan also ordered the U.S. to vacate an air base in western Pakistan from which the CIA has reputedly launched Predator drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.
"Public sentiment is against any cooperation" with the U.S., a senior Pakistani diplomat said. "They want a clear-cut apology."
The U.S. has sought to repair relations with Pakistan. One possible byproduct of that effort is the absence of CIA drone strikes since mid-November, an unusually long pause, said Bill Roggio, who tracks the strikes for the website Long War Journal.
Pakistan's air force is still allowing the U.S. to fly drones over Pakistan, U.S. and Pakistani officials say, so it's not clear why the drone strikes, which are deeply unpopular among the Pakistani public but tacitly supported by the government, have become more infrequent.
The Pakistani officials, speaking Thursday on condition of anonymity in accordance with embassy policy, said the NATO force in Afghanistan did not alert them that coalition troops would be operating on the Afghan side near the Pakistani border outposts, an omission they said violated established protocols. U.S. officials sometimes do not share targeting information with the Pakistani side for fear it will be passed along to militants, as it has been in the past.
The NATO force had been well aware of the location of the two Pakistani border outposts that were attacked, the officials said. The posts, code-named Volcano and Boulder, were rudimentary hilltop positions protected by stone walls situated about a quarter-mile inside Pakistan, the officials said. The troops there were equipped to target Taliban militants, not fend off an air assault, they said.
Shortly before the posts were attacked around midnight, the defense official said, a NATO officer approached a Pakistani officer at a border coordination base to ask whether any Pakistani forces were operating in the area. The Pakistani officer asked for clarification, because the coordinates provided were incomplete, the defense official said. But by then, it was too late: The attack was underway.
The coordinates NATO supplied turned out to be wrong, and the NATO officer apologized to the Pakistani officer, the defense official said. At 1:05 a.m., NATO informed Pakistan that it was withdrawing the helicopters, but the attack continued until 2:15 a.m., the Pakistani official said.
Video posted on YouTube by the Pakistani military shows the outposts still smoldering the morning after the attack. A slide presentation Thursday by the Pakistani officials included photos of the flag-draped coffins of the dead and of the two officers who were killed, a major and a captain.