U.S.-led forces dropped more than a dozen bombs in and near Pakistan's tribal regions Wednesday in an attack that exacerbated tensions along the Afghan border and, according to authorities here, killed 11 Pakistani paramilitary troops.
Many details of the incident remained unclear. A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan said airstrikes were launched after an incursion by “anti-Afghan forces,” and Pentagon officials said the strikes had been coordinated with Pakistan.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry called the incident “a gross violation” of the international border that threatens to “undermine” cooperation with U.S. and NATO forces fighting Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan, who use Pakistan's remote tribal region as a refuge.
“The attack was unprovoked,” a Foreign Ministry statement said. “The senseless use of airpower against a Pakistani border post by Coalition Forces is totally unacceptable. It constitutes a blatant and willful negation of the huge sacrifices that Pakistan has made in its endeavor to combat terrorism.” The statement represented Islamabad's harshest criticism of the U.S.-led NATO coalition since the Bush administration won Pakistan's support for the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan.
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While the Pentagon defended the strikes as justified, a statement released by the U.S. Embassy said the United States “regrets that actions … resulted in the reported casualties among Pakistani forces, who are our partners in the fight against terrorism.”
The incident is likely to cause further damage to the fraying relationship between the U.S. and the Pakistani military at a time when senior U.S. officials are concerned that Osama bin Laden and his supporters are plotting new attacks on the United States and its allies from sanctuaries inside Pakistan's tribal belt.
Some U.S. officers privately contend that some Pakistani army, intelligence and paramilitary officers are secretly continuing to aid the insurgents despite Islamabad's avowed support for the Bush administration's “war on terror.”
Earlier this month, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited with top Pakistani officials in Islamabad, including the newly appointed head of Pakistan's army, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. While Mullen publicly lauded the Pakistani military's efforts to control the growing insurgency, he privately expressed concern with the Pakistani government's recent moves to negotiate with militants, according to a Western diplomat who was briefed on the meetings.
The latest incident erupted when U.S.-supported Afghan troops tried to establish a post near Sheikh Baba in the Mohmand tribal region, along the disputed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to local villagers and Pakistani military officials. Taliban troops then opened fire on the Afghans.
A U.S. military statement said coalition forces fired artillery at insurgents who had attacked the coalition's base, which is close to the Pakistani post. It said NATO forces coordinated the artillery barrage beforehand with the Pakistani military.
“Shortly after the attack began, coalition forces informed the Pakistan army that they were being engaged by anti-Afghan forces,” the statement said. “At that same time, an unmanned aerial system also identified anti-Afghan forces firing at coalition forces. In self-defense, coalition forces fired artillery rounds at the militants.”
Two Air Force F-15E jets and a B-1B Lancer bomber then dropped the bombs, which included both precision-guided and unguided munitions, the statement said. McClatchy Newspapers and The Washington Post contributed.