Pakistani ground troops opened fire on two NATO helicopters that crossed into Pakistan’s airspace from Afghanistan early Tuesday morning, the Pakistani Army said in a statement. In the firefight that followed, two Pakistani soldiers were wounded, it said.
The clash provided another irritant to the already sour relationship between the United States and Pakistan in the wake of the May 2 Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden at a compound deep inside Pakistan, heightening American mistrust of Pakistan and inflaming Pakistani sensitivities over sovereignty.
The exchange of fire on Tuesday took place at Admi Kot Post in the North Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan, an area that American officials have long regarded as a haven used by militants to attack coalition forces inside Afghanistan. NATO officials said they were looking into the incident, and could not immediately confirm whether the helicopters had indeed entered Pakistan’s airspace.
A local government official said two NATO helicopters crossed into North Waziristan and remained for about 10 minutes in the area, known to be a hub for Al Qaeda-linked fighters including the Haqqani network that is leading the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan. The helicopters retreated after Pakistani border forces opened fire in the Datta Khel area about 40 km (24 miles) west of the main town of Miranshah, a security official said. “A shell struck a mountain nearby and two of our soldiers were wounded by the rubble,” the official said. The Western military official said the helicopters came under fire first. “Our initial reports indicate that two ISAF helicopters were in the area in support of FOB (forward operating base) Tillman, as the FOB had been receiving intermittent direct and indirect fire from across the Pakistani border,” he said. “Upon arrival the helicopter received fire from across the border but did not immediately return fire. Upon receiving fire from across the border a second time, the helicopter returned fire,” he added. (Reuters)
Pakistani military officials said the NATO helicopters came about 400 yards into Pakistani territory. The Pakistani Army “lodged a strong protest and demanded a flag meeting,” it said in a statement, referring to a meeting between officials from Pakistan and NATO on the border. (New York Times) Last September, Pakistan shut down the land route through Pakistan that NATO uses to supply its forces in Afghanistan for more than a week after two Pakistani paramilitary soldiers were killed in a similar border clash.
A Pakistan Army statement said: “Two NATO helicopters violated Pakistan air space today at Admi Kot Post North Waziristan Agency in the early hours of the morning. The troops at the post fired upon the helicopters and, as a result of [the] exchange of fire, two of our soldiers received injuries. Pakistan army has lodged strong protest and demanded a flag meeting.” (BBC)
A spokeswoman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said: “ISAF is aware of the incident and is assessing it to determine what happened. This effort will be pursued in a co-operative manner using the border co-ordination centre partnership.” (BBC)
A senior Pakistani security official said NATO has lodged its own complaint with Pakistan, accusing its forces of “unprovoked firing.” Western military officials in Kabul had no immediate comment about the possible complaint. (Reuters)
However galling the current clash may be to Pakistani military officials, it was not clear that they would take similar action this time, as both sides may also be seeking to pull relations back from the brink. On Monday, Senator John Kerry met with top civilian and military leaders in Pakistan in an effort to smooth ties.
Lawmakers in both countries have responded with outrage since the Bin Laden raid. In the United States Congress, calls are rising to cut or suspend aid to billions of dollars a year in aid that flow to Pakistan since Bin Laden was killed by American commandos in Abbottabad, a small city about 70 miles from the capital that is home to a top military academy.
For their part, Pakistani officials were furious that they were given no advance notice of the raid, such is the distrust between the two countries. In a closed session of Parliament last week, Pakistani lawmakers urged the government to revisit relations with the United States, warning that Pakistan might sever supply lines to Afghanistan if there were further unilateral incursions.
Despite the anger on both sides, however, the Americans would like to maintain Pakistani cooperation as they try to wind down the war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan would like to keep aid flowing from the United States, which has amounted to more than $20 billion in the last decade.
The clash on the border came as Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, traveled to Beijing. Analysts said that visit was meant to signal to the United States that Pakistan saw China as an alternative source of security and economic aid.
In a possible sign that cooperation had not collapsed completely, the Pakistani Army announced on Tuesday that a senior operative of Al Qaeda, Muhammad Ali Qasim Yaqub, alias Abu Sohaib al-Makki, had been arrested by Pakistani security agencies from the southern port city of Karachi.
Maj. Gen. Arthar Abbas, the spokesman for the Pakistani Army, said that Mr. Makki was of Yemeni origin and that he was working directly under Al Qaeda along the Pakistani-Afghan border. “More details are coming in as he is investigated,” General Abbas said by telephone. He declined to provide more details on the circumstances or the exact timing of the arrest. (New York Times)
It was not immediately clear if the arrest involved joint United States-Pakistan cooperation. But it seemed to be a result of increased American pressure on the Pakistani government and its main spy organization, Inter-Services Intelligence, to produce results in the effort to root out extremism and militancy.
During his visit on Monday, Senator Kerry said that the government had recommitted to finding more ways to work together against terrorism and in intelligence sharing. But he stressed that “our progress in the days ahead will be measured by actions, not by words.” (New York Times)