U.S. apologizes for fatal strike in Pakistan

A man walks among fuel tankers that militants set on fire in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Six such attacks have occurred recently.
A man walks among fuel tankers that militants set on fire in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Six such attacks have occurred recently. (Rizwan Saeed)
By Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nearly a week after a U.S. missile strike killed or wounded six Pakistani soldiers, the United States apologized Wednesday, acknowledging that two of its Afghanistan-based assault helicopters had entered Pakistani airspace "several times" and mistakenly fired at a military post.

Statements from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and coalition force headquarters in Kabul largely agreed with Pakistan's initial assessment that its troops had fired rifle shots to warn the helicopters they were on the Pakistani side of the border. The helicopters, on an anti-insurgent mission, responded with missiles that destroyed the post, killing two Pakistanis and wounding four. Coalition statements initially said the missiles were fired in self-defense.

"We deeply regret this tragic loss of life and will continue to work with the Pakistan military and government to ensure this doesn't happen again," Gen. David H. Petraeus, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a military statement that pledged better coordination. U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson extended "our deepest apology to Pakistan and the families" of the casualties.

A senior Pakistani military official described the statements as "good gestures" that would be "taken positively by everybody in Pakistan," along with an assurance that "these attacks won't be repeated." Pakistan had demanded a statement of fault and an apology.

The main Torkham border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan, shut in response to the attack, remained blocked Wednesday, extending a backup of coalition military supplies. Gunmen have carried out several attacks on supply trucks in Pakistan, including a strike Wednesday in which up to 25 fuel tankers were torched in the southwestern city of Quetta.

The fatal airstrike, the latest in a series of air incursions into Pakistan, heightened tensions between the South Asian nation and the United States. The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is very unpopular in Pakistan, where many see it as a catalyst for homegrown militancy.

The Obama administration has become frustrated with Pakistani reluctance to launch a full offensive against insurgent sanctuaries in the border region, from which attacks in Afghanistan are launched. Beginning late last year, the administration has issued several warnings to Pakistan that if it does not move aggressively against the sanctuaries, the United States will have to take action.

A report President Obama sent to Congress this week criticized Pakistani efforts. "The Pakistan military continued to avoid military engagements that would put it in direct conflict with Afghan Taliban or al-Qaeda forces in North Waziristan," the remote border area where sanctuaries are located, it said. "This is as much a political choice as it is a reflection of an under-resourced military prioritizing its targets."

The semiannual report, mandated by Congress last year, covers the period from March through late August. It said that, while Pakistani offensives in South Waziristan and other regions had succeeded in clearing extremists, efforts to hold and reconstruct the areas were advancing slowly.

"Unless these challenges are overcome," it said, "the Government of Pakistan risks allowing the insurgency the opportunity to reestablish influence over a population that remains skeptical of its government's staying power."

In recent weeks, U.S. missile strikes from CIA-operated drones targeting the sanctuaries have sharply increased in western Pakistan. Attack helicopters have repeatedly entered Pakistani airspace under what U.S. officials have said is a tacit agreement that coalition forces near the border can respond from the air in self-defense if attacked from Pakistan.

The helicopter incursions went largely unnoticed until late last month, when a helicopter attack reportedly killed as many as 50 insurgents, grabbing the attention of the Pakistani media and drawing public criticism. Last week's attack on the border post manned by Pakistani Frontier Corps soldiers brought expressions of outrage from the country's parliament, military and public.

U.S. and Pakistani officials viewed 21/2 hours of overhead video as part of the probe. The senior Pakistani military official said that it showed that the Frontier Corps post was on the Pakistani side of a hill, about 200 yards across the border, and was not visible from the Afghan side. The helicopters approached from inside Pakistan, apparently returning from what the coalition said was a strike on a Taliban position preparing a cross-border mortar attack.

The Frontier Corps position was well known to U.S. forces, the official said. The two sides exchange grid coordinates of each post every six months, most recently in June, and the one in question had been in place since 2005. The video, he said, shows a Pakistani soldier raising his rifle in the air and firing a warning, not toward the helicopters. After the 5:30 a.m. attack on the post, the official said, U.S. helicopters returned to the area about 9 a.m. and fired seven more missiles.

The coalition military statement said that "the team concluded two coalition helicopters passed into Pakistan airspace several times. Subsequently, the helicopters fired on a building later identified as a Pakistan border outpost, in response to shots fired from the post."

"We believe the Pakistani border guard was simply firing warning shots after hearing the nearby engagement and hearing the helicopters flying nearby," U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Tim Zadalis said in the coalition statement.

deyoungk@washpost.com brulliardk@washpost.com

Brulliard reported from Islamabad.

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