KHAR, Pakistan – Pakistan today accused NATO helicopters of firing on an army checkpoint near the Afghan border and killing 15 soldiers, in an attack that is likely to further strain relations between Islamabad and U.S.-led forces fighting in Afghanistan.
Pakistan state TV reported that the death toll was 25.
NATO officials in Kabul said they were aware of the incident, and would release more information after they were able to gather more facts about what happened.
The incident late Friday night came a little over a year after U.S. helicopters accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers near the border, whom the pilots mistook for insurgents they were pursuing. Pakistan responded by closing a key border crossing on a NATO supply route to Afghanistan for 10 days until the U.S. apologized.
In a statement sent to reporters, the Pakistan military blamed NATO for the attack in the Mohmand tribal area, saying the helicopters “carried out unprovoked and indiscriminate firing.” It said casualties have been reported but details were still coming.
A government official and a security official said the helicopters killed 15 Pakistani soldiers, including two officers, and wounded seven others in two attacks on the checkpoint.
The government official was based in Mohmand and the security official in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan’s northwest.
The governor of Pakistan’s northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province criticized the incident, calling it “an attack on Pakistani sovereignty.”
The checkpoint that was attacked had been recently set up in Salala village by the army to stop Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in Afghanistan from crossing the border and staging attacks, said two government administrators in Mohmand, Maqsood Hasan and Hamid Khan.
The military has blamed Pakistani Taliban militants and their allies for killing dozens of security forces in such cross-border attacks since the summer. Pakistan has criticized Afghan and foreign forces for not doing enough to stop the attacks, which it says have originated from the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. The U.S. has largely pulled out of these provinces, leaving the militants in effective control of many border areas.
The Afghan-Pakistan border is a constant flashpoint, with both nations and the U.S. exchanging accusations of violations and of negligence in preventing cross-border attacks.
The U.S. and Afghan governments have long accused Pakistan of not doing enough to prevent its territory from being used by Afghan Taliban militants and their allies to stage attacks against forces in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government blamed Pakistan for firing hundreds of rockets into eastern Afghanistan earlier this year that killed dozens of people. The Pakistan army has denied it intentionally fired rockets into Afghanistan, but acknowledged that several rounds fired at militants conducting cross-border attacks may have landed over the border.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have largely focused their attacks on on their own sides of the border. The Afghan Taliban aims to topple the U.S.-allied government in Kabul, and the Pakistani Taliban has tried to do the same in Islamabad.
Frustration about cross-border attacks in both directions has contributed to deteriorating ties between the U.S. and Pakistan. The relationship took an especially hard hit from the covert U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town on May 2. The Pakistanis were outraged that they were not told about the operation beforehand, and now are angered even more than before by U.S. violations of the country’s sovereignty.