PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The Pakistani army Wednesday accused the U.S. military of an “unprovoked and cowardly” airstrike that resulted in the deaths of 11 Pakistani infantrymen, threatening the cooperation between the two countries in combating terrorism.
In an unusually strong statement, the Pakistani army added that it reserved the right to protect citizens from unwarranted aggression.
As U.S. officials expressed regret for the deaths without claiming responsibility, the incident threatened to aggravate already tense relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, whose newly elected government has faced accusations from the U.S. military that it has failed to crack down on extremists in Pakistan’s western tribal areas.
A senior official acting as an intermediary between the two countries said there was a flurry of high-level phone calls and meetings Wednesday attempting to defuse the incident. Top Pakistani officials were so irate that they summoned U.S. Ambassador Ann W. Patterson to the foreign office to complain, the official said.
“Nobody wants this to become bigger than it is,” said the senior official. “It is just a bad time for this to happen. You want to just play it down and figure out a way of calming the rage.”
U.S. airstrikes in Pakistani territory have occurred with some regularity in recent months, and are a recurring source of friction between Washington and Islamabad. According to U.S. officials, many of the previous attacks have targeted Taliban and al-Qaida militants. But such incidents stoked the ire of Pakistanis who see the strikes as an infringement on their sovereignty.
The U.S. State Department expressed regret for the deaths of the Pakistani infantrymen after a gunfight involving U.S. troops on the Afghanistan border escalated into pitched battle Tuesday night, leading to a U.S. airstrike that Pakistani officials said killed members of the military’s Frontier Corps.
But U.S. officials also said they had yet to confirm that the strike, in which multiple bombs were dropped, was responsible for the deaths.
“This is a complex attack involving an airstrike and artillery and a number of forces … along a border that has traditionally been a problem and often the cause of some confusion as to who the forces are that are involved,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.
According to the Pakistani army, 11 members of the Mohmand Rifles, including a major, were killed in the airstrike in the region bordering Afghanistan’s Kunar province. The Mohmand Rifles are a unit of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force deployed to maintain security in the western tribal areas.