Tensions Between U.S. and Pakistan Rise After NATO Strike

Thousands gathered outside the American consulate in the city of Karachi on Sunday to protest against a NATO cross-border air attack that killed 24 Pakistani troops and is threatening a strategic alliance between the countries.

A soldier guarded trucks, some containing NATO supplies, after Pakistan closed the Chaman border crossing on Saturday, November 26, 2011. Photo: News In Pictures/Flickr

“America is attacking our borders. The government should immediately break ties with it,” said Naseema Baluch, a housewife attending the Karachi demonstration. “America wants to occupy our country but we will not let it do that.”

The strikes, which Pakistani officials said involved both helicopters and fighter jets, took place overnight at two military posts in Salala, a village in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region near the border with Kunar Province in Afghanistan.

At least 40 soldiers were deployed at the posts, Pakistani military officials said, adding that NATO aircraft had penetrated roughly a mile and a half into Pakistan to make the strikes.

In a statement, Isaf commander Gen John R Allen said the incident “has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts”.

“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.”

Pakistani officials said on Saturday that NATO aircraft had killed at least 25 soldiers in strikes against two military posts at the northwestern border with Afghanistan

The Pakistani government ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to vacate the drone operations it runs from Shamsi Air Base, in western Pakistan, within 15 days.

It also closed the two main NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, including the one at Torkham.

NATO forces receive roughly 40 percent of their supplies through that crossing, which runs through the Khyber Pass, and Pakistan gave no estimate for how long the routes might be shut down.

Moreover, the country’s supreme army commander called them unprovoked acts of aggression in a new flash point between the United States and Pakistan.

U.S. and NATO officials are trying to defuse tensions but the soldiers’ deaths are testing a bad marriage of convenience between Washington and Islamabad.

“This was a tragic unintended incident,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement, adding that he fully supported a NATO investigation that was under way.

“We will determine what happened, and draw the right lessons.”

In Washington, American officials were scrambling to assess what had happened amid preliminary reports that allied forces in Afghanistan engaged in a firefight along the border and called in airstrikes.

Senior Obama administration officials were also weighing the implications on a relationship that took a sharp turn for the worse after a Navy Seal commando raid killed Osama bin Laden near Islamabad in May, and that has deteriorated since then.

“Senior U.S. civilian and military officials have been in touch with their Pakistani counterparts from Islamabad, Kabul and Washington to express our condolences, our desire to work together to determine what took place and our commitment to the U.S.-Pakistan partnership, which advances our shared interests, including fighting terrorism in the region,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by telephone early on Sunday to convey “the deep sense of rage felt across Pakistan.”

“This negates the progress made by the two countries on improving relations and forces Pakistan to revisit the terms of engagement,” a Foreign Ministry statement quoted Khar as telling her U.S. counterpart.

Khar also informed Clinton that Pakistan wants the United States to vacate a drone aircraft base in the country.

Late on Saturday, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement saying they offered their “deepest condolences for the loss of life and support fully Nato’s intention to investigate immediately”.

They stressed the “importance of the US-Pakistani partnership, which serves the mutual interests of our people” and pledged to remain in close contact with their Pakistani counterparts, the AFP news agency quoted the statement as saying. [via The New York Times, Reuters and BBC]

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