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Alleged strike in Pakistan ratchets up tensions with U.S.

A NATO attack is said to have killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border. In response, Islamabad shuts down crucial border crossings.

November 26, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Trucks are parked along a road, including many carrying supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, near Pakistan's Torkham border crossing after it was closed to traffic.
Trucks are parked along a road, including many carrying supplies to NATO… (Shahid Shinwari, Reuters )

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Allegations that a NATO attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border Saturday dealt a serious blow to already tense relations between Washington and Islamabad at a time when the U.S. needs Pakistan's cooperation in engineering a peaceful resolution to the 10-year war in Afghanistan.

If confirmed, the NATO helicopter and fighter jet attack would be the deadliest ever involving Pakistani security forces.

In response, Pakistan shut down crucial border crossings used by convoys delivering supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan and gave the U.S. 15 days to vacate an air base in southern Pakistan that in the past had been suspected as a launchpad for CIA drone attacks.

Local officials said the incursion occurred about 2 a.m. Saturday at two Pakistani army posts in Salala, a border village in the restive northwestern tribal region of Mohmand. Two of the dead were a captain and a major, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on such matters.

The rugged Pakistan-Afghanistan border is extremely porous and difficult to police, enabling Afghan Taliban insurgents enjoying sanctuary in Pakistan to attack U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, and for Pakistani Taliban militants on the Afghan side of the border to attack Pakistani troops and posts.

In previous incidents involving NATO aircraft fire on Pakistani security forces, North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials have said their troops were either pursuing Taliban militants or thought they were shooting at insurgents.

NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson said it was "highly likely" that alliance aircraft caused the deaths. He told the BBC that close air support had been called in when "a tactical situation developed on the ground," but gave no further details.

U.S. Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the incident was being investigated. "This incident has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts," Allen said in a statement.

Although Pakistan tacitly permits the U.S. to carry out drone missile strikes against militant compounds and vehicles in the country's tribal areas, it has adamantly emphasized that it would not allow airstrikes or ground incursions on its territory.

U.S. military officials, however, have stated that 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 previously said that Pakistan abided by those rules, though Pakistani officials say no such accord exists.

Pakistani authorities said Saturday's assault was unprovoked and denounced it as a gross violation of their country's sovereignty. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani condemned the attack as "a blatant and unacceptable act." The military said it had lodged a protest with NATO and coalition forces in Afghanistan, demanding that "strong and urgent action be taken [against] those responsible for this aggression."

The military said the attack involved both NATO helicopters and fighter aircraft, and that Pakistani troops fired back at the aircraft. At least 13 soldiers were injured, according to a statement released by the Pakistani military.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the attack was "a serious transgression of oft-conveyed red lines and could have serious repercussions" for Pakistan's cooperation with U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials at the Torkham checkpoint at the Khyber Pass said Saturday afternoon that they had suspended all movement of NATO tankers and supply trucks heading into Afghanistan. A second border crossing in the southern town of Chaman also was shut down.

A similar incident occurred more than a year ago, when NATO helicopters crossed into Pakistan's Kurram tribal region along the Afghan border and fired on paramilitary troops at a border patrol checkpoint, killing two Pakistani soldiers. The U.S. government and NATO formally apologized for the deaths of the soldiers, saying the helicopter crews mistook the men for insurgents.

At the time, Pakistan responded to the incident by closing the Torkham checkpoint for 11 days, if effect stopping the movement of trucks and tankers ferrying fuel and supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. The border shutdown created a massive bottleneck, which paved the way for a series of militant attacks on parked NATO oil tankers and trucks across Pakistan. More than 150 NATO trucks were set ablaze or damaged and at least six people were killed in those attacks.

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