A Pakistani security official stands guard beside supplies destined for… (Matiullah Achakzai / EPA )
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities charged that two NATO helicopters crossed from Afghanistan into their country's airspace Tuesday and exchanged gunfire with an army post near the border, injuring two soldiers just a day after a top U.S. senator and Pakistani officials agreed that Pakistan and the U.S. would cooperate in the war on terror.
NATO helicopter incursions into Pakistani territory have occurred in the past, at times when coalition troops are pursuing Afghan Taliban fighters. However, the incursion Tuesday, if confirmed, occurred at a time when relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have plummeted to one of their lowest points in years, following the raid by American commandos that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad on May 2.
Pakistani officials were deeply angered by Washington's decision to carry out the raid without their authorization and have vowed to retaliate if any similar operation is carried out in the future. On Monday, Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with top Pakistani military and civilian leaders in Islamabad in an effort to revive the highly strained relationship between their two countries. After the meetings, both sides agreed to work together to track down top militant leaders regarded as "high value targets."
Pakistani army officials said that, after the NATO helicopters crossed into Pakistani airspace over the North Waziristan tribal region, Pakistani soldiers at a military post near the border fired at the helicopters. The helicopters fired back, and in the exchange of gunfire two Pakistani soldiers were injured.
Local authorities said the skirmish took place sometime before 7 a.m. in the Datta Khel area, a Taliban stronghold frequently targeted by U.S. drone missile strikes. The wounded soldiers were taken to a hospital in Miramshah, North Waziristan's largest town, local authorities said. In a prepared statement, the army said it had lodged a "strong protest" and requested a meeting with NATO officials to discuss the encounter.
A U.S. military official in Kabul, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said an incident involving coalition helicopters along the border was being investigated.
Previous instances of NATO helicopters crossing into Pakistan have caused serious rifts in the difficult alliance maintained by Washington and Islamabad. Last September, two NATO helicopters strayed into Pakistani airspace and delivered a missile strike on a border post, mistaking warning shots for hostile fire from insurgents. Two Pakistani soldiers were killed by the missile strike.
The Pakistani government retaliated by shutting down for 11 days a key border crossing that NATO uses to truck supplies and equipment through Pakistan and into Afghanistan. The U.S. later apologized for the incident. Roughly 40% of NATO's non-weapons supplies move by truck from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to two crossings along the Afghan border.
Staff writer Laura King in Kabul and special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.