NATO strike inside Pakistan unacceptable: Khar

Hina Rabbani Khar said that the attack has negated progress in improving the tattered alliance between the US and Pakistan.

Last Updated: Nov 27, 2011, 12:30 PM IST

Islamabad: A day after NATO aircraft allegedly killed 24 Pakistani troops at two military outposts, Pakistan`s Foreign Minister on Sunday told US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the attack has negated progress in improving the tattered alliance between the two countries.

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Hillary that the attack was unacceptable, showed complete disregard for human life and sparked rage within Pakistan. The Prime Minister`s office issued a press release describing the conversation.

The US says Hillary expressed sympathy over the incident and promised the US would work with Pakistan as NATO conducts an investigation.

"The Prime Minister will take the Parliament into confidence on the whole range of measures regarding matters relating to Pakistan`s future cooperation with US/NATO/ISAF, in the near future," Pakistani PM Yousuf Raza Gilani`s office said in a statement on Saturday.

Pakistan has retaliated by closing its Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies and giving the US 15 days to vacate an air base used by American drones.

The incident on Saturday was a major blow to American efforts to rebuild an already tattered alliance vital to winding down the 10-year-old Afghan war. Islamabad called the bloodshed in one of its tribal areas a "grave infringement" of the country`s sovereignty, and it could make it even more difficult for the US to enlist Pakistan`s help in pushing Afghan insurgents to engage in peace talks.

A prolonged closure of Pakistan`s two Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies could cause serious problems for the coalition. The US, which is the largest member of the NATO force in Afghanistan, ships more than 30 percent of its non-lethal supplies through Pakistan. The coalition has alternative routes through Central Asia into northern Afghanistan, but they are costlier and less efficient.

Pakistan temporarily closed one of its Afghan crossings to NATO supplies last year after US helicopters accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers. Suspected militants took advantage of the impasse to launch attacks against stranded or rerouted trucks carrying NATO supplies. The government reopened the border after about 10 days when the US apologised. NATO said at the time the relatively short closure did not significantly affect its ability to keep its troops supplied.

But the reported casualties are much greater this time, and the relationship between Pakistan and the US has severely deteriorated over the last year, especially following the covert American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May. Islamabad was outraged that it wasn`t told about the operation beforehand.

The government announced it closed its border crossings to NATO in a statement issued after an emergency meeting of the Cabinet`s defence committee chaired by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

It also said that within 15 days the US must vacate Shamsi Air Base, which is located in southwestern Baluchistan province. The US uses the base to service drones that target al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan`s tribal region when they cannot return to their bases inside Afghanistan because of weather conditions or mechanical difficulty, said US and Pakistani officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic matters.

The government also plans to review all diplomatic, military and intelligence cooperation with the US and other NATO forces, according to the statement issued after the defence committee meeting.

The White House said that senior US civilian and military officials had expressed their condolences to their Pakistani counterparts.

The White House statement said the officials expressed "our desire to work together to determine what took place, and our commitment to the US-Pakistan partnership which advances our shared interests, including fighting terrorism in the region”.

The White House statement did not address Pakistan`s decision to block supply routes for the war in Afghanistan or its demand that the US vacate the drone base.

The Pakistani Army said Saturday that NATO helicopters and fighter jets carried out an "unprovoked" attack on two of its border posts in the Mohmand tribal area before dawn, killing 24 soldiers and wounding 13 others. The troops responded in self-defence "with all available weapons," an Army statement said.

Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani condemned the attack, calling it a "blatant and unacceptable act”, according to the statement.

A spokesman for NATO forces, Brig Gen Carsten Jacobson, said Afghan and coalition troops were operating in the border area of eastern Afghanistan when "a tactical situation" prompted them to call in close air support. It is "highly likely" that the airstrikes caused Pakistani casualties, he told BBC television.

"My 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," Gen John Allen, the top overall commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

The border issue is a major source of tension between Islamabad and Washington, which is committed to withdrawing its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Much of the violence in Afghanistan is carried out by insurgents who are based just across the border in Pakistan. Coalition forces are not allowed to cross the frontier to attack the militants. However, 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. But militants based in Afghanistan have also been attacking Pakistan recently, prompting complaints from Islamabad.

The two posts that were attacked on Saturday were located about 1,000 feet (300 meters) apart on a mountain top and were set up recently to stop Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in Afghanistan from crossing the border and staging attacks, said local government and security officials.

There was no militant activity in the area when the alleged NATO attack occurred, local officials said. Some of the soldiers were standing guard, while others were asleep, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.

Pakistan Army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas said map references of all of the force`s border posts have been given to NATO several times.

Pakistan`s Prime Minister summoned US Ambassador Cameron Munter to protest the alleged NATO strike, according to a Foreign Ministry statement. It said the attack was a "grave infringement of Pakistan`s sovereignty" and could have serious repercussions on Pakistan`s cooperation with NATO.

Munter said in a statement that he regretted any Pakistani deaths and promised to work closely with Islamabad to investigate the incident.

The US, Pakistan, and Afghan militaries have long wrestled with the technical difficulties of patrolling a border that in many places is disputed or poorly marked. Saturday`s incident took place a day after a meeting between NATO`s Gen Allen and Pakistan Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Islamabad to discuss border operations.

The meeting tackled "coordination, communication and procedures ... aimed at enhancing border control on both sides," according to a statement from the Pakistani side.

The US helicopter attack that killed two Pakistani soldiers on September 30 of last year took place south of Mohmand in the Kurram tribal area. A joint US-Pakistan investigation found that Pakistani soldiers fired at the two US helicopters prior to the attack, a move the investigation team said was likely meant to notify the aircraft of their presence after they passed into Pakistani airspace several times.

A US airstrike in June 2008 reportedly killed 11 Pakistani paramilitary troops during a clash between militants and coalition forces in the tribal region.

(With Agencies’ inputs)