Pakistan gave China access to the previously unknown US “stealth” helicopter that crashed during the commando raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May despite explicit requests from the CIA not to, the Financial Times reported on Sunday.
The disclosure, if confirmed, is likely to further shake the US-Pakistan relationship, which has been improving slightly after hitting its lowest point in decades following the killing of bin Laden.
During the raid, one of two modified Blackhawk helicopters, believed to employ unknown stealth capability, malfunctioned and crashed, forcing the commandos to abandon it.
“The US now has information that Pakistan, particularly the ISI [Inter Services Intelligence Directorate], gave access to the Chinese military to the downed helicopter in Abbottabad,” the paper quoted a person “in intelligence circles” as saying on its Web site.
It said Pakistan, which enjoys a close relationship with China, allowed Chinese intelligence officials to take pictures of the crashed aircraft as well as take samples of its special “skin” that allowed the US raid to evade Pakistani radar.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was reason to believe Pakistan had allowed the Chinese to inspect the aircraft, but the official could not confirm it happened with certainty.
No one from the Pakistani army was available for comment, but the ISI, Pakistan’s top spy agency, denied the report. The paper said Pakistan’s top general, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani, denied that China had been given access.
The surviving tail section, photographs of which were widely distributed on the Internet, was returned to the US following a trip by US Senator John Kerry in May, a spokesman for the US embassy said.
Shortly after the raid, Pakistan hinted that it might give China access to the helicopter, given its fury over the raid, which it considers a grievous violation of its sovereignty.
“We had explicitly asked the Pakistanis in the immediate aftermath of the raid not to let anyone have access to the damaged remains of the helicopter,” the Financial Times quoted the source as saying.
In an incident such as the helicopter crash, it is standard US procedure to destroy sophisticated technology such as encrypted communications and navigation computers.
Pakistan is a strategic ally to the US, but the relationship has been on a downward spiral since the killing of the al-Qaeda leader in the raid by US forces.
Islamabad was not informed in advance and responded by cutting back on US trainers in the country and placing limits on CIA activities there.
The fact that the al-Qaeda leader lived for years near the Pakistani army’s main academy in the northwestern garrison town of Abbottabad reinforced suspicions in Washington about Islamabad’s reliability in the war against militant Islamists.
There are also growing frustrations with Pakistan over its reluctance to mount offensives against militant factions in the northwest who are fighting US-led foreign forces across the border in Afghanistan.