U.S.-Pakistan Ties Further Strained by Air Strike

By Saeed Shah and Nancy A. Youssef for McClatchy Newspapers

Tension between Pakistan and the United States rose Sunday over a U.S. air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, as the two sides offered widely disparate accounts of what might have happened.

NATO officials said Afghan and U.S. troops operating inside Afghanistan early Saturday had been fired on from the Pakistani side of the border and had requested close air support to help defend themselves. What happened next is still under investigation, officials said.

But Pakistan’s chief military spokesman said he did not believe that there had been any fire directed at the Americans from Pakistan, and said he did not believe the attack could have been inadvertent.

Major Gen. Athar Abbas said the military outpost on a mountain top at Salala in the Mohmand part of Pakistan near the Afghan border was well-marked on maps that both Pakistan and NATO have, and that the U.S. air assault lasted for more than an hour.

“I cannot rule out the possibility that this was a deliberate attack by ISAF,” Abbas said, referring to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. “This was a visible, well-made post, on top of ridges, made of concrete. Militants don’t operate from mountaintops, from concrete structures.”

The incident sent U.S.-Pakistani relations to their lowest point since the May raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout, when U.S. troops entered Pakistan without notifying Pakistani officials and killed the al Qaeda leader. U.S. officials believe bin Laden had lived for years in Abbottabod, the site of Pakistan’s premier military academy.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a prepared statement that Saturday’s events were a “tragic unintended incident.” But NATO provided no details on what happened. U.S. Army Col. Greg Julian, a NATO spokesman, said officials are still investigating.

The Pakistan positions hit are about 300 yards inside Pakistan, Abbas said, and ISAF troops made “no attempt” to contact the Pakistani side using the established border coordination system. He said that the map references to the Pakistani positions had been previously passed to ISAF.

Taliban fighters often use Pakistan’s tribal area as a sanctuary, from which to launch artillery or rockets, or as a place to retreat under fire from NATO.

Pakistan announced Saturday that it would “review” all military, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation with the United States and ISAF forces in response to the incident.

Pakistan also closed its border with Afghanistan to trucks carrying supplies for ISAF, and announced that American forces would be expelled from Shamsi, a remote air base in Pakistan that was turned over to U.S. forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and used as a launching point for the U.S.’ controversial drone program.

On Sunday, Pakistan raised the possibility that it would also boycott a conference next month in Bonn, Germany, on Afghanistan’s future. Pakistan’s cooperation is considered vital for stabilizing Afghanistan and bringing the Taliban into negotiations.

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