US, Pakistani troops exchange fire

Allies at odds over the hunt for militants;Tensions high in border area

By Julian E. Barnes
Los Angeles Times / September 26, 2008
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WASHINGTON - US and Pakistani forces exchanged gunfire yesterday along the Afghanistan border, as simmering tensions over American incursions into Pakistan reached a full boil.

The incident began, US officials said, when forces from a Pakistani outpost fired on two Kiowa OH-58 reconnaissance helicopters. That touched off a five-minute small arms fight when a ground unit made up of Afghan and US forces returned fire on the Pakistani outpost, US military officials said.

There were no casualties, US officials said. The shots fired by the US-Afghan unit were "suppressive" fire intended to force the Pakistanis to take cover and stop shooting. The helicopters did not fire any shots, US officials said. US military officers said the helicopters, under the command of NATO forces, were always within Afghanistan. But Pakistani officials said the helicopter entered Pakistan's tribal regions.

Although Pakistani officials have reported firing on US helicopters and unmanned aircraft in recent weeks, the incident yesterday is the first time US officials have confirmed an attack by Pakistani forces.

Anger in Pakistan has been steadily rising since the US began conducting additional cross-border commando raids as well as stepping up the number of attacks from unmanned Predator drones inside the tribal areas.

American officials do not believe senior Pakistan Army officers have issued formal orders to fire on US military units that cross the border. Defense officials said they may never know why the Pakistani forces fired.

The two sides' accounts differed sharply. US military officials said the helicopters were flying in support of the small ground force that was conducting "routine operations" on the Afghanistan border.

Pakistani officials said that the choppers entered deep into Pakistani airspace and flew over North Waziristan for 20 minutes. Residents said that unmanned spy planes were still hovering over the area.

The Pakistani Army's Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) agency said that two helicopters from Afghanistan crossed into Pakistani territory near the Ghulam Khan sector, prompting warning shots from the outpost.

US officials insisted their forces never left Afghanistan and denied the helicopters fired on the Pakistani outpost, saying the only gunfire came from American ground forces.

At the UN, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan said his military fired flares at the aircraft. In an address to the General Assembly, Zardari said, "We cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends."

Tensions spiked after a Sept. 3 raid into South Waziristan by US special operations forces, which prompted protests and a formal condemnation by the Pakistani parliament. A week later, Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief of staff who has been courted by Pentagon officials, criticized the US operations. A Pakistani Army spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, told the Associated Press that troops should "open fire" to prevent military forces from crossing the border. US officials do not believe Abbas's remarks represented official policy. In yesterday's incident, western military officers in the region reported that the helicopters stayed about a mile inside the Afghanistan border. But there are frequent disagreements about the precise location of the border.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the incident was a misunderstanding. But he suggested that the Pakistanis should have had little doubt whom they were firing at.

"We know the challenges on the border, but it is not too difficult to imagine who is flying helicopters there," he said. "Pakistan is an ally, not an enemy."

After the incident, US military officials in the region scrambled to meet with Pakistani military liaisons.

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