A senior Pakistani army official has said a NATO cross-border air attack that killed 24 soldiers was a deliberate, blatant act of aggression, hardening Pakistan’s stance on an incident which could hurt efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
In a briefing to editors carried in local newspapers yesterday, Pakistani director-general of military operations Major-General Ishfaq Nadeem also said NATO forces were alerted that they were attacking Pakistani posts, but helicopters kept firing.
“Detailed information of the posts was already with ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], including map references, and it was impossible that they did not know these to be our posts,” the News quoted Nadeem as saying in the briefing at army headquarters on Tuesday.
NATO helicopters and fighter jets attacked two military border posts in northwest Pakistan on Saturday in the worst incident of its kind since Islamabad allied itself with Washington in 2001 in the war on militancy.
The helicopters appeared near the post about 15 to 20 minutes past midnight, opened fire, then left about 45 minutes later, Nadeem was quoted as saying.
They reappeared at 1:15am and attacked again for another hour, he said.
Nadeem said that minutes before the first attack, a US sergeant on duty at a communications center in Afghanistan told a Pakistani major that NATO special forces were receiving indirect fire from a location 15km from the posts.
The Pakistanis said they needed time to check and asked for coordinates. Seven minutes later, the sergeant called back and said: “Your Volcano post has been hit,” Nadeem quoted the sergeant as saying.
Nadeem concluded that the communication confirmed that NATO knew the locations of the Pakistani posts before attacking, the News said.
The NATO attack shifted attention away from Pakistan’s widely questioned performance against militants who cross its border to attack US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan and has given the military a chance to reassert itself.
On Tuesday, Pakistan pulled out of an international conference on Afghanistan, an angry riposte after the attack by NATO plunged the region deeper into crisis.
Islamabad’s decision to boycott next week’s meeting in Bonn, Germany, will deprive the talks of a key player that could nudge Taliban militants into a peace process as NATO combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday said she regretted Pakistan’s decision to boycott next week’s international conference on Afghanistan, but hoped to secure Islamabad’s cooperation in future.
“Nothing will be gained by turning our backs on mutually beneficial cooperation. Frankly it is regrettable that Pakistan has decided not to attend the conference in Bonn,” Clinton told a news conference in South Korea.
Exactly what happened at the Pakistani posts along an unruly and poorly defined border is still unclear. NATO has promised to investigate.
A Western official and an Afghan security official who requested anonymity said NATO troops were responding to fire from across the border. Pakistan said earlier the attack was unprovoked.
Both the Western and Pakistani explanations are possibly correct: That a retaliatory attack by NATO troops took a tragic, mistaken turn in harsh terrain where differentiating friend from foe can be difficult.