Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani officials said Saturday that NATO aircraft had killed at least 25 soldiers in strikes against two military posts at the northwestern border with Afghanistan, and the country’s supreme army commander called it an unprovoked act of aggression, in a new flashpoint in tensions between the United States and Pakistan.
Officials in both countries called for investigations, and the Pakistani government said it had closed the main border crossing in the region, at Torkham, blocking NATO supplies from entering Afghanistan. And Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani cut short a vacation, returning to Islamabad, the capital, and calling a meeting of his cabinet’s defense committee.
In Washington, American officials were scrambling to assess what happened and weigh the implications on a relationship that took a sharp turn for the worse after the United States military helicopter raid that killed Osama bin Laden near Islamabad in May, and have degraded since then.
“It seem quite extraordinary that we’d just nail these posts the way they say we did,” said one senior American official who was in close touch American and NATO officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan early Saturday. “Whether they were going after people or whether there was some firing from the Afghan side of the border, then the Pakistan side, we just don’t know. It’s real murky right now. Clearly, something went very wrong.”
The American ambassador in Islamabad, Cameron Munter, called an emergency meeting and expressed regret over the Pakistani casualties. And Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, offered condolences to families of the dead and promised an investigation. “This incident has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts,” he said in a statement.
The strikes, which Pakistani officials said involved both helicopters and fighter jets, took place overnight at two military posts in Salala, a village near the border with Kunar Province in Afghanistan. At least 40 soldiers were deployed at the posts, which according to Pakistani officials were established to repulse cross-border attacks by Afghan militants and the Taliban.
Such attacks have been at the heart of an increasingly hostile relationship between Pakistani and American officials. The Americans accuse Pakistani forces of not doing enough to stop factions of the Taliban and Al Qaeda that are taking shelter in Pakistan from crossing over to attack American forces in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, repeated American drone strikes against militants in the northwester tribal regions, and the raid on Bin Laden, have enraged Pakistani officials over breaches in the country’s sovereignty.
In a statement, the Pakistani military said that its top commander, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, praised troops at the border checkpoints for responding “in self defense to NATO/ISAF’s aggression with all available weapons,” though there was no confirmation by NATO or American officials of return fire. The statement went on to say that General Kayani had “directed that all necessary steps be under taken for an effective response to this irresponsible act.”
President Asif Ali Zardari also strongly condemned the airstrikes, saying that he had lodged strong protests against NATO and the international military force in Afghanistan.
Barrister Masood Kausar, the governor of northwestern Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, called the attacks “unprovoked and highly condemnable” while talking to AAJ TV, a private news network.
“This incident is highly regrettable and condemnable. We think there is no justification,” Mr. Kausar said. “This is not a small incident. It is being taken very seriously.”
Mehmood Shah, a retired brigadier and analyst based in Peshawar, said the matter should be taken to the United Nations Security Council. Mr. Shah said Americans wanted to make Pakistan a scapegoat after facing failure in Afghanistan.
The border crossing closed at Torkham runs through the Khyber Pass and is the main crossing to Afghanistan from Pakistan. It is used by NATO to ship supplies into Afghanistan.
The episode also comes just a little more than a year after coalition helicopters killed three Pakistani security guards in a series of strikes. Pakistan responded by temporarily closing the border crossing at Torkham.
A similar attack occurred in June of 2008 and killed 11 soldiers belonging to a paramilitary force called the Frontier Corps, prompting the Pakistani government to temporarily halt shipment of NATO supplies to Afghanistan.
The border episode comes a day after General Kayani met in Rawalpindi with General Allen, the NATO commander in Afghanistan. The two generals had “discussed measures concerning coordination, communication and procedures between the Pakistan Army, I.S.A.F. and Afghan Army, aimed at enhancing border control on both sides,” according to a statement by the Pakistani military.
The border strikes will further aggravate the widespread anti-American sentiment in the country, said analysts here.
“Even if the U.S. thinks Pakistan is an unreliable and undependable ally, how does it think such an incident will go down with public opinion in Pakistan?” asked Omar R. Quraishi, the opinion editor at the Karachi-based English-language daily The Express Tribune.
“U.S. is funding civil society initiatives to the tune of millions of dollars but attacks like this won’t help. The U.S. should take more care,” Mr. Quraishi said.
Imran Khan, an opposition politician who has recently seen a surge in his public support, urged the Pakistani government to break its military alliance with the United States.
“The time has come to leave America’s war,” Mr. Khan thundered while speaking at a political rally in Shujaabad in Punjab province Saturday evening.
“The attack was carried by those for whom we have destroyed our own country,” he added, referring to United States and a popular perception here that Pakistan has suffered economically and in terms of human lives because of its partnership with the United States.