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.
Islamabad often protests suspected U.S. airstrikes on Pakistani soil, but Pakistani officials are widely believed to have given the U.S. approval to pursue militants along tribal regions where many al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders operate.
NATO officials say they have permission to target militants in Pakistan when they are acting in self-defense. But the Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement denied that Islamabad has signed off on that.
"There are no agreed 'hot pursuit' rules," the statement said. "Such violations are unacceptable."
The NATO strikes come amid what Pakistani officials describe as an aggressive assault on insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan by suspected unmanned CIA drones.
A Pakistani intelligence official said at least 20 drone strikes were carried out this month in Pakistan's tribal regions. Most were in North Waziristan, he said.
"It is an unprecedented increase," the Pakistani intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
He said Pakistani authorities have been unable to launch an offensive in North Waziristan because they are stretched thin in South Waziristan and other insurgent hotbeds.
"We are worried of negative fallout of the rise in drone attacks in the tribal belts," he said. "The local population is angry over the government's inability to stop the drone attacks and our forces are under attack in response."
Nizam Khan Dawar, a tribesman from North Waziristan, said suspected CIA spies have guided the recent strikes.
"The number of agents for the CIA has been increasing considerably in recent months," he said in a phone interview. "Mysterious people disguised as Taliban militants are behind these attacks, guiding the drone missiles."
A Taliban commander in North Waziristan said the militant group is trying to unmask the spies that have been guiding the strikes.
"Despite the frequent attacks, many people are joining us for jihad," he said in an interview from North Waziristan. "These drones failed to destroy our leadership and commanders."
A tribal elder from North Waziristan said the civilians living among militants in North Waziristan are terrified.
"Everyone in our area is living and moving in a state of fear that we might be hit by a missile from the drones hovering around our region continuously," he said in an interview in Peshawar. "We understand the drones target hideouts and compounds used by militants, but we are afraid of drones missing the target."
Meanwhile, the British Embassy in Kabul said Monday that it was working to gain the release of a British woman abducted Sunday during travel from Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province, to Jalalabad.
The woman, who has not been identified, was employed by Development Alternatives, which works on projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Her Afghan driver and bodyguard were also taken hostage.
"We are working closely with all relevant authorities," an embassy spokesman said. "We're also in touch with the family."
Staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.