PESHAWAR, Nov 26 – A NATO air strike killed at least 20 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border on Saturday, prompting Islamabad to immediately stop NATO supplies from crossing into Afghanistan, officials said.,
It was the deadliest NATO strike reported by Pakistan during the 10-year war in Afghanistan and was likely to destabilise already extremely tense US-Pakistani relations, just days after Pakistan forced its US envoy to resign.
The US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was aware of an incident and seeking further information about what happened in Mohmand, part of Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt branded an Al-Qaeda hub by Washington.
The Pakistan military condemned the pre-dawn attack on the border post in Baizai district as “unprovoked” and “indiscriminate”.
“At least 20 troops have been killed, two of them were officers,” a Pakistani security official told AFP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to release the casualty figures to the media.
Among the dead was a major. Officials in Mohmand warned that the toll could rise further.
Within hours of the strike, Pakistan stopped NATO supplies crossing the border into Afghanistan and state television reported that Pakistan’s acting ambassador in Washington had lodged a formal protest with the State Department.
“We have stopped NATO supplies after receiving orders from the federal government,” said Mutahir Hussain, a senior administration official in Khyber tribal region, on the Afghan border.
“Supply trucks are being sent back to Peshawar,” he told AFP.
Convoys have been blocked at Takhta Baig town on the outskirts of the northwestern city. Khyber straddles the main NATO supply line into landlocked Afghanistan from the Pakistani Arabian Sea port of Karachi.
In Kabul, a spokesman for ISAF told AFP: “We are aware that an incident did take place. We are still in the process of gathering information.”
Relations between Pakistan and the United States have been in crisis since an American raid killed Osama bin Laden near the capital without prior warning and after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January.
US officials have long accused the Pakistani military of playing a double game in supporting Afghan Taliban militants, coming to a head in September when the then top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, accused Pakistan of colluding with the Haqqani faction in a siege on the US embassy in Kabul.
Pakistan this week forced its envoy to the United States, Husain Haqqani, to step down over a scandal in which he was accused of seeking American help in reining in Pakistan’s powerful military after the bin Laden raid.
His successor, liberal rights campaigner and ruling-party lawmaker Sherry Rehman has yet to arrive in Washington.
Masood Kausar, the governor of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, strongly condemned Saturday’s attack as a violation of sovereignty.
“Such cross-border attacks are unacceptable and intolerable,” he said, adding the government would take up the matter at the highest level and launch a thorough investigation.
Pakistan has in the past accused NATO of violating the country’s airspace in the hunt for Taliban militants who flee across the border, but never before over such a deadly strike.
The last crisis occurred in September 2010 when Pakistan shut the main land route for NATO supplies at Torkham for just under two weeks after accusing NATO of killing three Pakistani troops in another attack in its northwest.
The border was reopened after the United States formally apologised.
Since the bin Laden raid Pakistani and US and Afghan officials have traded increasing complaints about cross-border attacks coming from both countries.
At talks in Islamabad last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Pakistan to take action within “days and weeks” on dismantling militant havens and encouraging the Taliban into peace talks.
US drones carry out routine missile attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, where American officials say neutralising Islamist militants is vital to winning the war in Afghanistan.