Pakistan Questions Legality of U.S. operation that killed bin Laden

By Karen Bulliard for The Washington Post

Pakistan’s foreign minister on Thursday appeared to question the legality of the U.S. operation that killed Osama bin Laden, and again denied that his country had knowingly sheltered the world’s most-wanted terrorist.

The comments by Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir came as Pakistani officials faced rising domestic backlash about the helicopter-borne assault in a sleepy neighborhood of a military garrison city, which they have acknowledged they did not know about in advance and — once they became aware of it — could not prevent.

The preservation of national sovereignty, particularly against incursions by U.S. troops, is a highly sensitive issue in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and both the presence of bin Laden and the dramatic American raid that killed him have greatly embarrassed the military here.

Bashir, citing United Nations Security Council resolutions on counter-terror operations, told reporters that the “modalities for combating terrorism raises certain legal and moral issues” and said that “everyone concerned ought to be mindful of their international obligations.”

On Tuesday, the foreign ministry in a statement expressed “deep concerns and reservations” that the U.S. carried out the mission in the city of Abbottabad unilaterally, without Pakistan’s knowledge or permission.

Such comments differ considerably from Pakistan’s measured statements in the hours after the killing, when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani called bin Laden’s death a “great victory.”

But though clearly directed at the United States, the suggestions that the operation might have breached international law also appeared to be a warning to Pakistan’s archenemy, India, which has been targeted in terror bombings and attacks by Pakistani militants.

On Wednesday, India’s army chief said his forces were capable of carrying out a similar raid — a notion Bashir called “bravado.”

“We feel that sort of misadventure or miscalculation could result in a terrible catastrophe,” Bashir told reporters here, while also vowing that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe. Pakistan and India, which also possesses nuclear weapons, have fought three wars.

Bashir indicated that there would be little introspection inside Pakistan about how and why bin Laden was able to reside here, under the nose of the military. Some Pakistani officials in recent days have said there would be an inquiry into intelligence failures, but Bashir played down that, saying questions about bin Laden were “for historians.”

“I would call it a ‘view,’ ” rather than an inquiry, Bashir said. “I think we are in a constant process of viewing at every level. … This is a routine. So I think we should not try to give it a slant in terms of an inquiry. There’s no such thing as an inquiry.”

Bashir provided additional details about Pakistan’s role in the years-long search for bin Laden, and about its actions the morning of the raid, when he said two Pakistani F-16 fighter jets were deployed in response to the U.S. operation. By the time the jets reached the compound, the raid was over.

He said a cellphone number for bin Laden’s trusted courier was discovered by Pakistan’s top spy agency and provided to the CIA, which used it to locate bin Laden’s compound.

U.S. officials have said they were monitoring the courier’s phone and e-mail communications and found him when he contacted a family member.

Bashir contradicted previous Pakistani statements that Abbottabad was under “sharp focus” since 2003 — a year when, a Pakistani intelligence official said earlier this week, the construction site for what would become the bin Laden compound was first raided.

Satellite images provided by U.S. officials, however, show there was no building happening on the property at that time.

On Thursday, Bashir said Abbottabad first surfaced on Pakistan’s radar as an al-Qaeda hideout in 2004, when the driver of Faraj al-Libbi, an al-Qaeda operative who would be arrested by Pakistan in 2005, was traced to the garrison city.

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