By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 13, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 12 -- The U.S. military released video footage Thursday that appears to show men firing on Afghan troops from a mountain ridge near Afghanistan's disputed northeastern border with Pakistan. The clash prompted a U.S. airstrike that Pakistan has blamed for the deaths of 11 of its soldiers.
The footage, shot by a circling drone, was issued after Pakistani government officials had unleashed a torrent of criticism over the U.S. military operation. Details of the battle, which occurred late Tuesday and has threatened to further destabilize the U.S.-Pakistan alliance, remain in dispute.
Only a few minutes long, the video shows about six or seven men firing rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at unseen coalition troops from an area overlooking a valley in Afghanistan's Konar province, about 200 yards from the Pakistani border. The grainy, black-and-white video then shows several bombs being dropped on what the U.S. military says were "anti-Afghan militants" in the area.
According to the video's voice-over, the action takes place near a Pakistani military checkpoint on a patch of land that has long been a source of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Neither the checkpoint nor any other structures are visible in the video excerpts. But several people are seen moving cautiously along a mountain ridge.
The voice-over says the coalition forces were on a reconnaissance mission and returned fire as they tried to pull out to a point where a helicopter could remove them.
The airstrike occurred after the gunmen fled over the porous border into Pakistan.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani army, said Thursday that military officials are reviewing the video footage and the Pentagon and State Department responses, "and will decide how to proceed after that review."
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said through a spokesman Thursday that he had discussed the operation with his American counterpart, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson, on Wednesday evening and lodged a formal protest.
"It was an unprovoked attack and gross violation of Pakistani borders," said the spokesman, Muhammad Sadiq. "The senseless use of air power by the coalition forces is totally unacceptable."
Another Pakistani government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Qureshi planned to take up the issue with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the Paris meeting of Afghan aid donor countries. He said the military strike "warrants a serious rethink" by coalition forces about such operations.
U.S. officials in Washington and Islamabad appeared unable to agree on how to respond to the incident. Defense Department officials said the attack was legitimate and avoided reference to Pakistani military casualties.
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, speaking to reporters in Rome, said the United States had "not been able to corroborate" the deaths of Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.
"It's still not exactly clear what happened," Hadley said. "At this point, we're still trying to get to the bottom of what happened. The reports, even from sources within the U.S. government, are conflicting."
In Islamabad, Patterson issued a statement early Thursday extending condolences to the soldiers' families. A separate statement said the United States continues to be "strongly committed to helping the people of Pakistan" in the "mutual fight against terrorism."
Officials in both countries indicated that the incident also pointed to the need for better coordination.
In Brussels, where he was attending a NATO meeting, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Pakistan and Afghanistan have been invited to join the U.S. investigation of the airstrike.
Pakistani military officials said about 25 members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps were manning the checkpoint at Gora Prai at the time of the strike. Seven troops were injured in the attack, said Abbas, the army spokesman.
But late Thursday, details of the battle and the casualty figures continued to vary widely. According to local villagers and Pakistani military officials, the clash erupted when Afghan troops tried to establish a checkpoint near the Sheikh Baba area in Pakistan's Mohmand tribal region, where the border is disputed.
Taliban gunmen apparently opened fire, setting off a battle lasting several hours, then were pushed back into Pakistan. U.S. warplanes dropped more than a dozen bombs on the zone after Afghan soldiers called NATO forces for air support.
On Wednesday, Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said nine fighters and one child were killed during the operation. Omar asserted that Taliban fighters fought "side by side" with Pakistani soldiers against U.S.-led Afghan forces.
A Pakistani military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter said the attack killed about 25 Frontier Corps soldiers and deeply angered members of two tribes dominant in the region, who have vowed to take revenge on coalition forces.
Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and staff writer Dan Eggen in Rome contributed to this report.