Pakistan denies it fired first in NATO attack that killed 24

Pakistan-protest

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Pakistani military officials on Monday angrily dismissed Afghan government claims that a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers was a retaliatory measure against fire from the soldiers’ two border posts or from nearby militants.

The dispute further deepened a new rift in U.S.-Pakistan relations that could jeopardize efforts toward a negotiated resolution to the war in Afghanistan.

Coalition forces called in air support only after coming under fire from the Pakistani side of the frontier, Afghan and Western officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation into the attack. But several officials said it remained unclear whether the fire came from insurgents sheltering near the Pakistani posts or from the posts themselves.

The airstrikes, which Pakistan says involved NATO gunships and occurred early Saturday, marked the deadliest toll of Pakistani soldiers slain by NATO troops since the Afghan conflict began 10 years ago.

Pakistani military officials insisted that the airstrike was unprovoked. They said the two posts that were attacked were situated on a mountaintop about 300 yards from the Afghan border and were clearly marked as Pakistani military installations, with the nation’s flags and with bold lettering. Soldiers who were not on guard duty at the time were asleep when the attack occurred, officials said.

“Why should they be firing ... toward the Afghan side with small-arms fire?” said a senior Pakistani military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on such matters. “The checkposts are very well known to the Afghan army and to NATO forces. ... No one can miss them or mistake them to be anything other than Pakistani army checkposts.”

Speaking to a private Pakistani television channel, Pakistan’s army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the Pakistani military tried to alert coalition forces that their gunships were firing on Pakistani army posts, but the attack continued.

“Now they’re coming up with excuses to wriggle out of the situation, [saying] they fired in retaliation,” Abbas said. “We don’t accept that.”

The Western military has stopped short of an acknowledgement of responsibility for the Pakistani deaths, but has said the likelihood is that they were caused by a NATO airstrike. The Afghan-Pakistani border is extremely rugged and porous, making it easy for militants to freely move from one side to the other. “That area -- it’s an accident waiting to happen,” said a Western diplomat who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

U.S. commanders in the past have said that Pakistani troops, either out of sympathy for the insurgents or reluctance to engage them, sometimes ignore militants’ presence on territory surrounding Pakistani bases and the militants' use of the area as staging grounds for cross-border attacks. Pakistani military officials say military operations in the Mohmand tribal region earlier this year had cleared militants from the area surrounding the posts.

The attack has touched off a wave of anger in a nation already deeply suspicious of American policies in the region. Small but fiery demonstrations in several Pakistani cities on Sunday were followed by a move Monday by lawyers to boycott courts across the country to protest the attack. Islamist parties and movements in the country have threatened to wage jihad against the U.S.

A Monday editorial in a leading English-language newspaper, the Daily Times, doubted that NATO would take Pakistan’s concerns seriously: “U.S. and NATO forces have routinely made it a matter of policy to do as they please and then apologize and move on.”

NATO is investigating the incident. The alliance’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, called the attack “a tragic, unintended incident” but stressed that the episode should not derail joint efforts between NATO, Afghan and Pakistani forces to uproot militants from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Pakistani officials, however, have made it clear that they are now reviewing whether to draw back that level of cooperation. On Sunday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that the shutdown of Pakistani border crossings used by convoys delivering supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan was a permanent move, rather than just a suspension.

Pakistani officials have also ordered the U.S. to leave an air base in the southern province of Baluchistan that in the past has been used as a center from which to launch American drone missile strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt along the Afghan border.

Especially troubling for Washington are reports that Pakistan may have decided to halt efforts to broker talks between the U.S. and insurgent leaders with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network,  groups that Washington believes enjoy sanctuary within Pakistan and have long-standing ties with Pakistan’s main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said there is virtually no chance of meaningful negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgents without the cooperation of Pakistan’s intelligence community.

The Express Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper, quoted an unnamed Pakistani official as saying that the nation's military had reacted to the NATO airstrike by stopping its bid to bring Afghan insurgents to the negotiating table.

Pakistan is also reconsidering its participation in an international conference on Afghanistan’s future, slated for Dec. 5 in Bonn, Germany. 

Pakistan’s help in brokering a peace deal with Afghan insurgents is considered by Washington as crucial toward bringing an end to 10 years of war between Taliban militants and U.S., NATO and Afghan forces. The U.S. is slated to complete its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and has told Pakistani officials that they need to expedite attempts to facilitate talks with insurgents.

[For the Record, 1:09 p.m. Nov. 28: An earlier version of this post reported that Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Monday that Pakistan was permanently shutting down border crossings used by delivery convoys to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Malik made that comment Sunday.]

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-- Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad and Laura King in Kabul

Photo: Supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party burn a U.S. flag during a protest in Multan on Monday over a NATO airstrike that Pakistani officials say killed 24 of their soldiers. Credit: S.S. Mirza / Agence France-Presse

 
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