Afghans infuriated by shelling from Pakistan

July 2, 2011

Public and political anger at weeks of cross-border shelling from Pakistan boiled over in Afghanistan, as protesters took to the streets of the capital, lawmakers demanded explanations from the central government, and a senior border police official submitted his resignation.

According to Afghan officials, more than 760 rockets have been fired into the eastern Afghan border provinces of Konar, Nangahar and Khost in the past six weeks, killing at least 60 people and wounding or displacing hundreds more.

Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, have lodged formal objections with Pakistan’s government, but Pakistani officials have denied direct involvement in the attacks, saying they are being carried out by anti-Afghan militias beyond their control.

“The people carrying the bodies of their loved ones on their backs come to me. I am the responsible person here, but nobody is listening to my voice,” said Gen. Aminullah Amarkhel, chief of the national border police in eastern Afghanistan, who offered his resignation Friday in the past week in protest. He spoke by telephone to an Afghan TV news channel.

In downtown Kabul, about 200 demonstrators staged a peaceful rally Saturday outside the U.N. representative’s office, chanting, “Down with Pakistan, down with the Pakistani army, down with the ISI,” a reference to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

“The government must break its silence on these attacks,” said Najibullah Kabuli, a political activist who organized the rally.

In Parliament, the defense and interior ministers and the director of the intelligence police were summoned to explain the government’s position on the attacks, which have heightened bilateral tensions as Afghanistan is seeking Pakistan’s support for peace talks with Taliban insurgents, and as the Obama administration is set to begin a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi told legislators that in several recent meetings, Afghan officials had shown Pakistani officials shrapnel, shell casings and ammunition as evidence of the attacks, but that “each time they shamelessly deny it.” He said he had told the Pakistanis, “You want to hide something as big as the sun with two fingers.”

Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak also said diplomatic efforts had failed to stop the cross-border attacks. Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan’s military and intelligence services of supporting some Islamist militant groups, including those that seek to destabilize Afghanistan.

“This violation . . . has hurt the feeling of every son of this nation and necessitates an urgent reaction,” Wardak said. He urged the lawmakers to deliberate carefully but said that if he is ordered to respond militarily, “we will not spare our lives or whatever we have.”

Wardak speculated that the rocket attacks were in response to U.S. drone strikes on militant targets in Pakistan’s tribal border region. He also suggested they could be a test of NATO forces’ resolve and capabilities as they begin to withdraw from Afghanistan later this month.

Last month, a high-level delegation to Pakistan led by Karzai complained that Pakistan was providing havens for Taliban and other anti-Afghan militants. The group asked Pakistan to crack down on recalcitrant militants and encourage repentant ones to join the peace talks.

A spokesman for the national intelligence police told journalists that the government “totally rejects” Pakistan’s assertions that it has nothing to do with the recent rocket attacks. The spokesman, Lutfullah Mashal, said many of the recovered rockets were too heavy and sophisticated for guerrilla groups. “Only the army has them,” he said.

The United States is also pressing Pakistan to curb violent Islamist militancy within its borders, but Pakistani army and intelligence officials have faced a domestic anti-American backlash — including from within their own ranks — since U.S. Special Forces discovered and killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani city in May.

Salahuddin is a special correspondent. Correspondent Pamela Constable contributed to this report.

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