Pakistan rejects US self-defense claim on strikes

January 23, 2012 - 2:35 PM
Pakistan US Airstrikes

FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 file photo, Pakistani protesters burn an effigy of US President Barrack Obama during a protest to condemn killings of Pakistani troops in NATO airstrikes, in Peshawar, Pakistan. Pakistan's army on Monday formally rejected a U.S. claim that American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops last year were justified as self-defense, a stance that could complicate efforts to repair the troubled but vital relationship between the two countries.(AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad, File)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's army on Monday formally rejected a U.S. claim that American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops last year were justified as self-defense, a stance that could complicate efforts to repair the troubled but vital relationship between the two countries.

In a detailed report, the army said that Pakistani troops did not trigger the Nov. 26 incident at two posts along the Afghan border by firing at American and Afghan forces, as the U.S. has alleged. Pakistan's army said its troops shot at suspected militants who were nowhere near coalition troops.

"Trying to affix partial responsibility of the incident on Pakistan is, therefore, unjustified and unacceptable," said the report, which was issued in response to the U.S. investigation that concluded at the end of December.

The U.S. expressed condolences for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers but said American troops acted "with appropriate force" in self-defense because they thought they were being attacked by Taliban insurgents.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. stood by the "thorough" investigation into the Nov. 26 incident conducted by the military's U.S. Central Command.

"We did offer to the Pakistani government, to the Pakistani military, that they could participate fully in our investigation and have their own people on our team. They declined to participate. That could have led to more convergence of view, perhaps," she told a news briefing Monday.

Pakistan responded quickly to the deadly attack by closing its border crossings to supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan. The borders have remained closed, and Pakistan also kicked the U.S. out of a base that was used to service American drones.

The differing accounts of what happened could make it difficult for the two sides to move forward, but many analysts believe they will find a way because it's in their own interests to do so. The U.S. needs Pakistan's help in targeting Islamist militants within the country and negotiating peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Islamabad is heavily reliant on billions of dollars in aid from Washington.

Pakistan said the fundamental cause of the deadly airstrikes was the decision by coalition forces not to tell Pakistan that American and Afghan troops were conducting an operation near the border inside Afghanistan before dawn on Nov. 26.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, an Air Force special operations officer who led the U.S. investigation, has said U.S. and NATO commanders believed some of their military operations were compromised after details and locations were given to the Pakistanis.

Clark has also said that U.S. forces did not know that the two relatively new Pakistani outposts — simple structures constructed with stacked gray stones — had been set up on a mountain ridge along the border.

The Pakistani army countered that coalition forces must have known about the two posts set up at the end of September 2011, because they had conducted at least one other operation in the area afterward. Coalition aircraft also conducted constant surveillance of the area, the Pakistanis said.

The army said previously that it provided NATO with maps clearly marking the location of the border posts, but that claim did not appear in its report.

The U.S. has said its forces attacked the posts after Pakistani troops targeted them with heavy machine gun fire and "effective" mortar fire.

The Pakistani army said its soldiers did not shoot in the direction of the patrol, but instead fired three mortars and "a few machine gun rounds" at a location at least 1 mile (1.5 kilometers) away from the coalition forces.

The army criticized the U.S. and NATO for "deep, varied and systematic" failures that prevented them from realizing they were targeting Pakistani forces over the course of three separate engagements that lasted at least 90 minutes.

"In the process, every soldier on and around the posts, even on the reverse slope of the ridge, was individually targeted," said the Pakistani report. "This pattern of engagement cannot be justified by calling it 'self-defense.'"

The U.S. has acknowledged that its forces failed to determine who was firing at them and whether there were friendly forces in the area. The U.S. said its troops used incorrect maps and mistakenly provided Pakistan with the wrong location where they said fighting was taking place — an area almost nine miles (14 kilometers) away.

The Pakistani army accused coalition forces of showing "no urgency whatsoever in a situation where due to use of overwhelming and disproportionate force ... lives were being lost."

"This displays utter disregard for the lives of the Pakistani soldiers," said the report, which pointed out the attack left behind seven widows and 16 orphans.

The Pakistani army claimed coalition forces attacked Pakistani troops four other times between June 2008 and July 2011, killing 18 soldiers.

Pakistan claimed coalition forces failed to hold anyone responsible for these past incidents. It refused to participate in the U.S. investigation into the Nov. 26, 2011, attack, claiming past U.S. probes into border incidents were biased.

"It is increasingly obvious to Pakistan military that the entire coordination mechanism has been reduced to an exercise in futility, is more for the purposes of optics and that it has repeatedly been undermined," said the army report.

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Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad contributed to this report.