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Pakistan Troops, NATO Helicopters Clash in Border Region

Pakistan Troops, NATO Helicopters Clash
Pakistani army soldiers patrol at the mountains area of Pash Ziarat, a town of North Waziristan in March of 2011. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Two NATO helicopters entered Pakistani airspace and triggered a firefight that injured two soldiers, Pakistan’s military said, in a further setback to ties strained by the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan troops at a border post in the North Waziristan region shot at the aircraft of the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan and were injured in a return of fire, according to an e-mail sent by Inter-Services Public Relations, the press office at Pakistan’s army headquarters in Rawalpindi. The army has lodged a “strong protest” with NATO’s Kabul-based International Security Assistance Force, the statement said. ISAF is aware of the incident and is investigating, spokesman Lieutenant John Harden said by phone.

North Waziristan is a mountainous district from where Afghan and Pakistani Taliban guerrillas attack U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan. Last September, Pakistan closed its border to U.S. military supplies for 10 days after a similar exchange of fire between a U.S. helicopter and Pakistani border troops.

The incident added to already heightened tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan in their nine-year joint effort to subdue some Islamic militant guerrilla groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. U.S. Senator John Kerry met Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and civilian leaders this week in an effort to improve dialogue after U.S. commandos raided a house deep in Pakistan May 2 to kill al-Qaeda leader bin Laden.

Sovereignty Protests

Pakistan’s leaders have protested the violation of the country’s sovereignty, and lawmakers in Parliament on May 14 asked the government to consider ending a transit route used by NATO to supply forces in Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has made it clear that they are going to protect their borders,” after the bin Laden incident, said Shaheen Akhter, a research fellow at Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad. Still, with the U.S. needing Pakistan’s help to “make its exit from Afghanistan as smooth as possible” and Pakistan not wanting to escalate confrontations on its western border, it will be “business as usual,” Akhter said.

Hours after Kerry completed his talks in Islamabad yesterday, missiles fired by U.S. unmanned aircraft killed seven suspected militants in North Waziristan, Pakistani officials said. Such strikes in the border area are very unpopular among Pakistanis for the civilian casualties they have caused.

A joint statement released by the Pakistan president’s office and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said the governments held “a constructive exchange.”

Clinton Visit

It said U.S. officials will visit Pakistan soon to prepare for a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed that Clinton will visit Pakistan on a date to be announced.

While the joint statement on cooperation appeared to rule out any repeat of the unilateral U.S. attack into the country, it did not explicitly address that point or the U.S. missile attacks from drones.

Although Pakistan’s army didn’t identify the nationality of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization helicopter in today’s firefight, the ISAF forces deployed across the border from North Waziristan, in the Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika, are Americans.

The firefight erupted at Admi Kot in the Pakistani border area of Datta Khel, which is controlled by Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

Bahadur hosts fighters from al-Qaeda and allied guerrilla groups, and his territory has been targeted by 65 of the 143 U.S. missile attacks launched by unmanned aircraft since the beginning of 2010, according to the Long War Journal, a private U.S. website that monitors the war.

U.S. officials said they didn’t inform their Pakistani counterparts of the attack on bin Laden because they feared sympathizers in Pakistan’s government or military might tip him off.

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