KARACHI, Pakistan — Tension between Pakistan and the United States rose Sunday over a U.S. airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, as the two sides offered widely disparate accounts of what might have happened.
NATO officials said Afghan and U.S. troops operating inside Afghanistan early Saturday had been fired on from the Pakistani side of the border and had requested close air support to help defend themselves. What happened next is still under investigation, officials said.
But Pakistan’s chief military spokesman said he did not think that there had been any fire directed at the Americans from Pakistan and said he did not think the attack could have been inadvertent.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the military outpost on a mountaintop at Salala in the Mohmand part of Pakistan near the Afghan border was well-marked on maps that both Pakistan and NATO have, and that the U.S. air assault lasted for more than an hour.
“I cannot rule out the possibility that this was a deliberate attack by ISAF,” Abbas said, referring to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force by its acronym. “If ISAF was receiving fire, then they must tell us what their losses were.”
No NATO casualties have been acknowledged in Saturday’s clash.
A military official in Washington identified the NATO forces involved as American.
The Saturday incident was the worst to date for the two supposed allies along the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border, and sent U.S.-Pakistani relations to their lowest point since the May raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout, when U.S. troops entered Pakistan without notifying Pakistani officials and killed the al-Qaida leader in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. U.S. officials think bin Laden had lived for years in Abbottabad, the site of Pakistan’s premier military academy.
Anti-Americanism was further stoked in Pakistan by images of the dead soldiers’ funeral on television Sunday. The army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, considered Pakistan’s most powerful man, attended the funeral services at a military base in Peshawar as did the top civilian officials from the northwest.
Television images showed 24 coffins laid out on a lawn, each wrapped in a Pakistan flag. Each coffin was carried away by an honor guard to be buried in the soldiers’ hometowns and villages.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a prepared statement that Saturday’s events were a “tragic unintended incident.” But NATO provided no details on what happened. U.S. Army Col. Greg Julian, a NATO spokesman, said officials still are trying to find out.
The Pakistan positions hit are about 300 yards inside Pakistan, Abbas said. The attack lasted for more than an hour, Abbas said, during which ISAF troops made “no attempt” to contact the Pakistani side using the established border coordination system. He said that the map references to the Pakistani positions had been previously passed to ISAF.
“This was a totally unprovoked attack. There are no safe havens or hideouts left there (for militants) in Mohmand,” Abbas said. “This was a visible, well-made post, on top of ridges, made of concrete. Militants don’t operate from mountaintops, from concrete structures.”
Taliban fighters often use Pakistan’s tribal area as a sanctuary, from which to launch artillery or rockets, or as a place to retreat under fire from NATO.
In the past, much confusion has been caused by insurgents firing into Afghanistan from positions close to Pakistani checkpoints, making it appear to NATO and Afghan troops that they are under attack from the Pakistani positions.
Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, who commands troops along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, said at the Pentagon this month that there are three or four cross-border attacks a week. Most are blamed on the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, which U.S. officials have claimed is allowed to operate in Pakistan.