REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- A top Pakistani army general Tuesday called a NATO airstrike last week that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the border with Afghanistan a deliberate act of aggression, and he expressed doubt that a U.S. investigation would uncover the truth.
Asked by a reporter what would be the motive for NATO to deliberately kill Pakistani soldiers, Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem replied that the question needed to be put to the alliance, according to a security analyst who attended the briefing. The gathering was open to analysts and Pakistani journalists but not to the foreign media.
Saturday's attack by NATO helicopters on two Pakistani army border posts has plunged U.S.-Pakistani relations to a new low, just as both sides had begun to mend the partnership following the secret U.S. commando raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad in May. That raid incensed the Pakistani military and public, which denounced it as a blatant breach of their country's sovereignty.
NATO and the U.S. have begun investigations into the airstrike. So far, officials in Washington, Kabul and Islamabad have given widely disparate accounts of the attack. U.S. and Afghan officials have said a team of Afghan and coalition troops conducting a nighttime operation on the Afghan side of the border came under fire from the direction of the posts and called in air support.
Pakistani military officials insist that the airstrike was unprovoked.
According to the security analyst who attended the briefing, former Pakistani Gen. Talat Masood, Nadeem said military leaders were convinced that the attack was deliberate because NATO knew the exact location of the two posts. Also, NATO helicopters continued firing even after Pakistani military leaders alerted the alliance that Pakistani soldiers were stationed at the posts. The attack lasted nearly two hours, Nadeem said.
Nadeem's remarks came as Pakistan decided to pull out of an international conference in Bonn, Germany, to discuss Afghanistan's future. The conference, scheduled for next Monday, is to assemble Western and regional leaders who will seek ways to ensure Afghanistan remains stable as the U.S. and its allies pull their troops out of the war-torn country by 2014.
Expectations are low for any significant breakthroughs. Nevertheless, Pakistan is seen by both Washington and Kabul as a key player in forging a peaceful resolution to 10 years of war against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
Pakistani leaders said this week that they will revisit their level of cooperation with the U.S. and NATO in the wake of the airstrike, and the pullout from the Bonn conference appeared to signal Islamabad's willingness to use its influential role in Afghanistan as leverage.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Supporters of Pakistan's Movement for Justice pray in Lahore on Tuesday after a demonstration over a NATO cross-border attack. Credit: Mohsin Raza / Reuters