US officials gave Pakistani soldiers the wrong location when asking for clearance to attack militants along the border last weekend, Pakistani military officials said on Friday. The strike resulted in the deaths of 24 soldiers and a major crisis in relations between Washington and Islamabad.
The claim was the latest in a series by mostly anonymous officials in both countries trying to explain what happened before and during last week’s bombing of two Pakistani border checkpoints by US aircraft.
NATO and the US have expressed regret for the loss of lives, but have rejected Pakistani allegations it was a deliberate act of aggression.
The incident has pushed already strained ties between Washington and Islamabad close to rupture, complicating US hopes of securing Pakistan’s help in negotiating an end to the Afghan war. In retaliation for the raid, Islamabad has already closed its western border to NATO supplies traveling into landlocked Afghanistan.
Thousands of Islamic extremists and other demonstrators took to the streets across the country after Friday prayers to protest the Nov. 26 strike. Some called on the army to attack the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. The chants were a worrying sign for the West because it indicates that anger over the incident is uniting hard-liners and the military.
Pakistan’s army, still smarting from the criticism it received after the unilateral US chopper-borne raid that killed former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2, has ordered border troops to take a more aggressive posture against intruders, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said.
“Instructions have been issued to all units of the Pakistan armed forces to respond, with full force, to any act of aggression and infringement of Pakistan’s territorial frontiers,” he said.
US officials said that the incident occurred when a joint US and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small arms fire by Taliban militants.
Before responding, the patrol first checked with the Pakistani army, which reported it had no troops in the area, they said.
US officials say Pakistani troops had “given the go-ahead” for the strikes, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. This account would suggest that the Pakistanis were at least partly to blame for the deadly error.
A Pakistani military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information confirmed that the US had provided his side with a location for the planned strike.
However, he said, the information arrived late, Pakistan never cleared the strike and the coordinates provided were incorrect.
“Wrong information about [the] area of operation was provided to Pakistani officials a few minutes before the strike,” he said. “Without getting clearance from Pakistan side, the post had already been engaged by US helicopters and fighter jets.”
The prime minister said that after the attack, military authorities contacted the border coordination center, where the two sides liaise over operations close to the frontier.
However, the strikes continued and “relief and reinforcements sent from the nearby Pakistani posts also came under attack,” he said.
US officials at the border coordination center later “apologized privately to Pakistani officials for initially providing wrong information and the subsequent engagement of the post without prior information,” he said.