Pakistani Troops Fire on U.S. Helicopters

September 25, 2008 02:23 PM
by Isabel Cowles
Pakistani troops shot at U.S. forces on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan Thursday.

Pakistani Military Admits to Firing on U.S. Troops

Pakistani troops have admitted to firing at American-supplied NATO helicopters doing reconnaissance near the country’s border with Afghanistan Thursday, the BBC reports. No injuries were reported on either side, although Pakistani and U.S. officials disagree on the sequence of events.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman has confirmed that the helicopters belonged to the United States, according to Reuters, but claimed that “The flight path of the helicopters at no point took them over Pakistan.”

Major General Athar Abbas, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, asserts that the aircrafts had “crossed into our territory in Ghulam Khan area.” According to Abbas, “They passed over our checkpost so our troops fired warning shots.”

American forces deny returning fire, although Pakistani military claim that the U.S. fired back. According to a Pakistani military statement quoted by ABC News, “When the helicopters passed over our borders post and were well within Pakistani territory, own security forces fired anticipatory warning shots. On this, the helicopters returned fire and flew back.”

On Wednesday, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari denied that Pakistani troops fired live rounds at the helicopters. “They are flares, they are flares, just to make sure that they know they have crossed the border line,” Zardari said.

The heightened presence of U.S. troops on the cross-border region has created tension with Pakistan, which struggles to balance defending its border from insurgents and maintaining its territorial sovereignty amidst the presence of U.S. soldiers.

On Thursday, President Zardari emphasized the point: “Just as we will not let Pakistan’s territory be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbors, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends.”

In a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice on Wednesday, Zardari emphasized that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan can be very unclear.

U.S. soldiers are currently stationed in a cross-border area known to be a haven for Taliban and al-Qaida militants. U.S. and NATO forces have stepped up protection of the area, incurring frustration from the Pakistanis, especially after a violent raid in Pakistan territory on September 3.

The recent gunfire firings may be a reaction to the raid. According to Abbas, “After the [Sept. 3] incident, the orders are clear. In case it happens again in this form, that there is very significant detection, which is very definite, no ambiguity, across the border, on ground or in the air: open fire.”

But the Pentagon has demanded further clarification about what happened along the ambiguous border. “This is an unfortunate incident. It just goes to demonstrate the importance of coordination along that border,” Whitman said of the events. “The Pakistanis have to provide us with a better understanding of why this took place.”

Background: Tension in Pakistan mounts after September 3 raid

A raid on September 3 prompted Pakistani military leaders to push back against the American presence in the cross-border region: tension between the two forces has continued to mount since.

On September 3, U.S. forces conducted a ground raid inside Pakistan, targeting a suspected Taliban haven. Pakistani leaders condemned the attack, claiming that it killed upward of 15 Pakistani civilians.

Spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy, Nadeem Kiani said that U.S. soldiers were acting on flawed intelligence and that they did not communicate their information or intentions with Pakistani forces.

Kiani asserted that the raid was a violation of Pakistan’s sovereign territory: “the intelligence was not correct and the people who have been killed are unarmed civilians, not militants, and those include women and children. Being an ally, any action taken on this side of the border should have been taken by Pakistani forces. There was a need to share that information with the Pakistani side.”

Following a U.S.-led attack on September 12, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas ordered Pakistani troops to fire at U.S. soldiers if another attack was launched across the border. Abbas’ decision was a response to Pakistani public opinion that U.S. forces threaten the country’s territorial integrity. “Please look at the public reaction to this kind of adventure or incursion,” Mr. Abbas said. “The army is also an extension of the public and you can only satisfy the public when you match your words with your actions.”

Despite the unpopularity of U.S. led attacks, Pakistan depends on U.S. aid, both militarily and financially. According to a Reuters, “Pakistan is highly vulnerable to any reduction in U.S. financial support, given the depletion of foreign reserves, which has sparked talk it could default on a sovereign bond next year unless it gets foreign financing. Pakistan’s state news agency reported last week that the United States had reimbursed Pakistan $365 million for operations and logistical support in the war against terrorism.”

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