Islamabad retaliated by closing the border crossings used by the international coalition to supply its troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The incident, which took place before dawn yesterday, was a major blow to already strained relations between Islamabad and US-led forces fighting in Afghanistan. It will add to perceptions in Pakistan that the American presence in the region is counterproductive, and further fuel resentment toward the weak government in Islamabad for co-operating with the West.
It comes a little more than a year after a similar but less deadly strike near the Afghan border in which US helicopters accidentally killed two Pakistanis that US pilots thought were insurgents. Pakistan responded by closing the Torkham border crossing in Mohmand to Nato supplies for ten days until the US apologised.
Yesterday Pakistan went further, closing both of its border crossings into landlocked Afghanistan. Nato moves about a third of the non-lethal supplies used by its Afghan-based forces through Pakistan. A temporary blockade will have no effect on the war effort, but serves as a reminder of the leverage Pakistan has over the US from the supply routes running through its territory.
A spokesman for Nato forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, said it was “highly likely” that close air support called in by Afghan and coalition forces operating in the border area had caused Pakistani casualties. Nato is investigating the incident to determine the exact details, he told the BBC. General John Allen, the overall commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement that his “most sincere and personal heartfelt condolences go out to the families and loved ones of any members of Pakistan security forces who may have been killed or injured”.
Much of the violence in Afghanistan is carried out by insurgents based just across the border in Pakistan. Coalition forces in Afghanistan are not allowed to cross the frontier in pursuit, but the militants sometimes fire artillery and rockets across the line, reportedly from locations close to Pakistani army posts.
American officials have repeatedly accused Pakistani forces of supporting – or turning a blind eye – to militants using its territory for cross-border attacks. The border issue is the major source of tension between Islamabad and Washington, which wants to stabilise Afghanistan and withdraw its combat troops by the end of 2014.
Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “strongly condemned” the attack on the two checkpoints, calling it a “blatant and unacceptable act,” according to an army statement. It said the “unprovoked” attack was carried out by Nato helicopters and fighter jets, killing 24 soldiers and wounding 13 others. Pakistani soldiers responded in self-defence “with all available weapons,” said the statement.
The two checkpoints were around 1,000ft apart, and one of them was attacked twice, said a government official in Mohmand and a security official in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan’s north-west. Two officers were among the dead. Ties between Washington and Islamabad already have been hard hit by the covert US commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May. The Pakistanis were outraged that they were not told about the operation beforehand, and now are even more sensitive about US violations of the country’s sovereignty.Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, summoned US ambassador Cameron Munter to protest the alleged Nato attack. It said the attack was a “grave infringement of Pakistan’s sovereignty” and could have serious repercussions on Islamabad’s co-operation with Nato. Pakistan has also lodged protests in Washington and Nato headquarters in Brussels, it said.
A Pakistani customs official said that he received verbal orders to stop all Nato supplies from crossing the border through Torkham in either direction.
The operator of a terminal at the border where Nato trucks park before they cross confirmed the closure. Saeed Ahmad, a spokesman for security forces at the other crossing in Chaman in south-west Pakistan, said that his crossing was also blocked following orders “from higher-ups”.
Yesterday’s incident took place a day after a meeting between Nato’s General Allen and Pakistan army chief General Kayani in Islamabad to discuss border operations. The meeting tackled “co-ordination, communication and procedures between the Pakistan army, Isaf, [International Security Assistance Force], and the Afghan army, aimed at enhancing border control on both sides,” according to a statement from the Pakistani side.
The checkpoints that were attacked had been recently set up by the army. They were intended to stop Taleban militants crossing the border and staging attacks, according to local government administrators.
The US helicopter attack that killed two Pakistani soldiers last September took place south of Mohmand in the Kurram tribal area.
A joint US-Pakistan probe found that Pakistani soldiers fired at the two US helicopters prior to the attack, a move investigators said was probably meant to notify the aircraft of their presence after they repeatedly entered Pakistani airspace.
Pakistan moved swiftly after the attack to close Torkham to Nato. Suspected militants took advantage of the impasse to launch attacks against stranded or rerouted trucks carrying Nato supplies.