June 11, 2008, 2:22 pm
Pakistan slams US after air strike kills 11 soldiers
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — Pakistan’s military condemned a “cowardly” US air strike that killed 11 Pakistani troops near the Afghan border on Wednesday, saying it could jeopardise cooperation in the “war on terror”.
The attack on a checkpost in Pakistan’s volatile tribal zone was the first of its kind since Islamabad joined Western efforts against the hardline Taliban movement in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
It heightened tensions between Pakistan and the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, which recently warned that the new government’s decision to hold peace talks with militants could increase cross-border infiltration.
A Pakistani army spokesman “condemned this completely unprovoked and cowardly act” and blamed the coalition for the “aerial attack” that destroyed a paramilitary post in the Mohmand tribal region, a statement said.
It confirmed that 11 soldiers were killed including an officer.
“The incident had hit at the very basis of cooperation and sacrifice with which Pakistani soldiers are supporting the coalition in the war against terror,” it quoted the spokesman as saying.
Pakistan had lodged a strong protest with the coalition, it said.
Heavily armed local tribesmen brandishing rocket launchers and Kalashnikov rifles gathered near the checkpost in the mountainous Gora Prai area to show their support after the attack, residents said.
The US-led coalition in Afghanistan referred queries to the US embassy in Islamabad, which in turn said that the Pentagon was dealing with the matter. The Afghan military made no immediate comment.
Pakistani security officials said the deaths came after Afghan troops crossed the porous frontier and tried to occupy the strategic Pakistani post in the troubled tribal belt, which borders eastern Afghanistan.
The post was in an area that has long been disputed between the two countries.
Pakistani troops repulsed the Afghan soldiers and the coalition then bombed the area. Coalition aircraft also killed around 15 Taliban militants about a kilometre (half a mile) away, the officials said.
A spokesman for Pakistani Taliban militants, Maulvi Omar, said eight “mujahideen (holy warriors)” were killed in an air strike by coalition helicopters.
He also said the rebels had shot down a coalition helicopter and captured seven Afghan soldiers when they were returning from “attacking” the post. There was no confirmation of either claim.
Pakistan has protested over a series of missile strikes attributed to US-led forces in Afghanistan in recent months, including one in the tribal region of Bajaur in May that killed more than a dozen people.
Several Pakistani soldiers have also been killed by stray shells but it appears to be the first time that any have been killed by a targeted air strike by US forces.
Disputes over the 2,500-kilometre (1,500-mile) frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, both key allies in the US-led “war on terror,” have flared up several times in recent years.
Pakistan’s new government, which ousted allies of President Pervez Musharraf in elections in February, has entered peace talks with pro-Taliban militants in the tribal belt, causing concerns among its Western allies.
The attack came two days after a US think tank said in a report that members of Pakistan’s intelligence services and its paramilitaries were supporting Taliban insurgents.
The study by the RAND corporation, funded by the US Department of Defence, said that if Taliban bases in Pakistan were not eliminated, the forces supporting the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai “will face crippling long-term consequences in their effort to stabilise and rebuild Afghanistan.”
Pakistan’s military denounced the claims in a statement as “yet another smear campaign maligning Pakistan armed forces and creating differences as well as misunderstanding amongst the coalition partners.”