Rebuke from Islamabad after NATO airstrikes kill 55 on Pakistani soil

Disputes in the volatile region highlight flaring tensions as U.S. troops surge into southern Afghanistan, an area once patrolled almost solely by NATO allies.
Map of Pakistan showing the vicinity of NATO airstrikes
By Ernesto Londono and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 27, 2010; 9:21 PM

JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN - The Pakistani government on Monday strongly condemned a pair of NATO airstrikes on Pakistani soil that NATO officials said killed about 55 suspected insurgents over the weekend.

"These incidents are a clear violation and breach of the U.N. mandate" that governs the conduct of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The airstrikes, which military officials said were carried out to beat back an attack on a small Afghan army border outpost, come amid what Pakistani officials describe as a sharp rise in suspected CIA drone attacks targeting Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Although NATO troops have occasionally crossed into Pakistan while pursuing militants, this weekend's operation was unusual for the high death toll and the sharp rebuke from Islamabad.

The incident will probably exacerbate tensions between the U.S-led international force in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Washington sees as a crucial, if sometimes unreliable, partner in the war in Afghanistan.

Maj. Michael Johnson, a NATO spokesman, said NATO helicopters entered Pakistani airspace after Combat Outpost Narizah in Khost province came under attack Friday.

He said 49 suspected insurgents were killed in the initial engagement.

A second team of attack helicopters was dispatched to the location Saturday morning to relieve the initial team, Johnson said. Pilots from the second crew opened fire after they came under attack from fighters on the ground, Johnson said. He said an "additional four to six" suspected insurgents were killed in the second airstrike.

"The rules of engagement were followed," Johnson said. "They were acting in self-defense."

Johnson said NATO has not received reports suggesting that civilians may have been caught in the fire.

A U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, downplayed the prospect of heightened tensions over the raid. "We've enjoyed greater cooperation with the Pakistanis, and it gets consistently better all the time," the official said.

U.S. officials said the uptick in Predator attacks has been driven by improved intelligence on an insurgent group known as the Haqqani network, rather than a coordinated CIA-military effort to expand operations on either side of the border. "Our operational tempo has been up for a while now," the official said.

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