At Pakistani Embassy, officials decry NATO airstrike

December 15, 2011

Pakistani officials in Washington vehemently asserted Thursday that a deadly NATO airstrike on two Pakistani border posts near Afghanistan last month was unprovoked and inexplicable. They also said that U.S. military officials in the region had given “inaccurate and incomplete” information to their Pakistani counterparts as the attack, which killed 24 Pakistani troops, got underway.

Their comments, at a Pakistani Embassy news conference, came one week before U.S. military officials are expected to release the results of their investigation of the incident. NATO and Afghan officials have described the late-night assault as a response to gunfire from the vicinity of the Pakistani border posts, where they suspected militants had taken cover.

The incident, which caused a public uproar across Pakistan, deepened the rift between the U.S. and Pakistani governments. As a result of the November airstrike, Pakistan cut off NATO supply routes to Afghanistan and boycotted a recent conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany. It also declined to cooperate in the U.S. investigation of the incident.

Afghan military officials have said that coalition forces in Afghanistan came under fire from militants, who retreated to an area near the Pakistani military posts. American military officials have declined to release a detailed account of the incident pending their investigation, but they have expressed regret for the loss of life.

Pakistani officials Thursday referred to U.S. and NATO forces as “our friends” and stopped short of saying that the air attack had been deliberately aimed at Pakistani forces. But they repeatedly asserted that it could not have been a case of mistaken identity, and they said NATO forces in the area had multiple channels to communicate and coordinate with their Pakistani counterparts. The officials declined to be named for the record.

Pakistani Christians shout slogans during a protest in Lahore on Nov. 28 against a NATO strike on Pakistan troops. (ARIF ALI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

They also insisted that the attack, which began shortly after midnight, had continued for more than two hours, well after senior NATO officials had been told that they were killing Pakistani forces. By 1:05 a.m., a Pakistani military official said, “the entire chain of command knew something had gone wrong. If there was any doubt before, there was none after.” But he said the attack continued until well after 2 a.m.

Some key details of the apparent miscommunication, however, remained unclear. The official said Pakistani military officials, stationed at a joint border control center in Afghanistan with NATO officials, were told that a military operation was being launched but were given partial and incorrect information about the location. He said the NATO officials apologized for the errors, but he did not say when the apologies were made.

In previous interviews and statements, military officials in Pakistan have given varying accounts of the incident. One official has said that Pakistani forces also suspected there were militants in the area, sent up flares and fired at them. The officials on Thursday did not comment on these reports, but they said the area had been cleared of militant activity by a major army operation in September.

Pamela Constable covers immigration issues and immigrant communities. A former foreign correspondent for the Post based in Kabul and New Delhi, she also reports periodically from Afghanistan and other trouble spots overseas.
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