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NATO helicopters crossed into airspace, Pakistan says

The aircraft exchanged gunfire with a border post, injuring soldiers, officials say. The confrontation comes after a U.S. senator and Pakistani officials agreed on cooperation to pursue top militants.

May 18, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • In a 2009 file photo, Pakistani troops walk on a hilltop post near Ladha, a town in the Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan along the Afghan border.
In a 2009 file photo, Pakistani troops walk on a hilltop post near Ladha,… (Anjum Naveed / Associated…)

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities said 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. The confrontation came just a day after a top U.S. senator and Pakistani officials agreed that their nations would cooperate in pursuing top militants.

NATO helicopters have made incursions into Pakistani territory, at times when coalition troops were pursuing Afghan Taliban fighters. However, the incursion Tuesday, if confirmed, came as relations between the U.S. and Pakistan had plummeted to one of their lowest points in years, after the raid May 2 by American commandos that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.

Pakistani officials were deeply angered by Washington's decision to carry out the raid without their authorization and have vowed to retaliate for any similar operation in the future.

On Monday, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with top Pakistani military and civilian leaders in Islamabad, the capital, 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 militant leaders regarded as "high-value targets."

Pakistani army officials said soldiers at a military post near the border fired at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization helicopters after they crossed into airspace over the North Waziristan tribal region. The helicopters fired back, and in the exchange two Pakistani soldiers were injured.

Local authorities said the skirmish took place 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 Miram Shah, North Waziristan's largest town. In a prepared statement, the army said it had lodged a "strong protest" and requested a meeting with NATO officials.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Marine Col. Dave Lapan said the incident began when Forward Operating Base Tillman in Afghanistan's Paktia province received fire from nearby Pakistan. The U.S. Apache attack helicopters fired back, he said, adding that there were no American casualties.

He declined to comment on reports that the helicopters had crossed into Pakistani airspace, saying, "The incident is under investigation."

U.S. units have standing permission to respond if attacked from Pakistan.

Previous instances of NATO helicopters crossing into Pakistani airspace have caused serious rifts in the difficult alliance maintained by Washington and Islamabad. In 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. At least two Pakistani paramilitary troops were killed.

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. About 40% of the alliance's non-weapons supplies move by truck from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to two crossings along the Afghan border.

The United States later apologized for the incident.

Meanwhile, Pakistani authorities announced the arrest of a senior Al Qaeda operative in Karachi. A statement issued by the military said Muhammad Ali Qasim Yaqub, a Yemeni national also known as Abu Sohaib al Makki, focused his activities along the Pakistani-Afghan border and answered to Al Qaeda's top leadership.

The statement did not indicate when Yaqub was arrested. The announcement comes as Bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad for five years has raised serious questions in the United States about Pakistan's commitment to taking on Al Qaeda and its allied militant groups.

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

Times staff writers David S. Cloud in Washington and Laura King in Kabul, along with special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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