ISLAMABAD — Afghan troops and coalition forces came under fire from the direction of two Pakistan army border posts, prompting them to call in NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, Afghan officials said Sunday. The account challenges Islamabad’s claims that the attacks, which have plunged U.S.-Pakistan ties to new lows, were unprovoked.
It also pointed to a possible explanation for the incident Saturday on the Pakistani side of the border. NATO officials have complained that insurgents fire from across the poorly defined frontier, often from positions close to Pakistani soldiers, who have been accused of tolerating or supporting them.
Pakistan’s political leaders and military establishment, still facing domestic criticism following the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May, have reacted with unprecedented anger to the soldiers’ deaths. They closed the country’s Western border to trucks delivering supplies to coalition troops in Afghanistan, demanded the U.S. vacate a base used by American drones within 15 days and said they were reviewing all cooperation with the U.S. and NATO.
Despite those actions, a total rupture in what both sides acknowledge is an imperfect relationship is considered unlikely. Pakistan still relies on billions of dollars in American military and civilian aid, and the U.S. needs Islamabad’s help to push Afghan insurgents to engage in peace talks.
NATO officials have previously said a joint Afghan-NATO operation was taking place close to the border and that airstrikes were called in. All airstrikes are approved at a higher command level than the troops on the ground.
The alliance has said it is conducting an investigation to determine the details. It has not commented on Pakistani claims the attacks killed 24 soldiers, but it has not questioned them.
“The attack was unprovoked and indiscriminate,” said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. “There was no reason for it. Map references of all our border posts have been passed to NATO a number of times.”
The attack sparked popular anger in Pakistan. There were protests in several town and cities across the country, including Karachi, where around 500 Islamists rallied outside the U.S. Consulate.
NATO’s top official, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, offered his deepest condolences and said the coalition was committed to working with Pakistan to “avoid such tragedies in the future.”
“We have a joint interest in the fight against cross-border terrorism and in ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe-haven for terrorists,” Rasmussen said in Brussels.
A year ago, a U.S. helicopter attack killed two Pakistani soldiers posted on the border. A joint U.S.-Pakistan investigation found that Pakistani troops fired at the two U.S. helicopters prior to the attack, a move the probe said was likely meant to notify the aircraft of their presence after they passed into Pakistani airspace.
Islamabad closed one of the two border crossing for U.S. supplies for 10 days to protest that incident.
There was no indication of how long Islamabad could keep the border closed this time.