By Karin Brulliard Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 12:49 PM
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – Pakistani officials said Thursday that NATO supply trucks had been blocked from entering Afghanistan at a key border post in response to an early morning NATO airstrike that they said killed three Pakistani border security soldiers.
According to a Pakistani military statement, the attack occurred at 5:25 a.m. at the Mandata Kandaho border post about 600 feet inside Upper Khurram agency, a region in Pakistan’s tribal belt that borders Afghanistan’s Khost province. After the helicopters “engaged through cannon fire” with the post, the six soldiers stationed there fired warning shots with their rifles, and the helicopters responded with two missiles that destroyed the post, according to the Pakistani account.
Within hours, the border crossing at Torkham had been ordered closed by federal officials, and NATO supply trucks were idling there, according to transporters stuck at the pass and officials in the region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The pass, which lies north of Peshawar, is the most important entry point for coalition forces’ fuel and supplies, most of which come into Pakistan through the southern port of Karachi.
“We will have to see whether we are allies or enemies,” Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said of the border incident, without mentioning the blockade.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s office said that Zardari told CIA director Leon Panetta, who was in Islamabad on Thursday, that “the government of Pakistan strongly disapproves any incident of violation of its sovereignty. Any violation of internationally agreed principles is counter productive and unacceptable.”
A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan said a crew of attack helicopters “did enter Pakistani air space briefly” Thursday morning after ground troops in Paktia province determined a cross-border mortar attack was imminent.
“Operating in self-defense, the [coalition] aircraft entered into Pakistani airspace, killing several armed individuals,” said Lt. Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman. Dorrian said officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan were investigating whether that airstrike was linked to the airstrike that Pakistan said killed its soldiers.
The developments could gravely aggravate relations between the United States and Pakistan, whose rugged mountains are used by Afghan militants as safe havens. Although Pakistan is an ally in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, it does not allow international combat troops or operations on its soil.
Pakistani military and government officials did not confirm the border blockade, but they protested the airstrike, which was at least the third in a week. Pakistan protested previous strikes and incursions into its airspace over the weekend and threatened to cut off supply routes. On Wednesday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters he had “clarified” the weekend’s events in a telephone conversation with Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army, and that they had arrived at a “decent understanding” of what had happened.
One Pakistani security official said there was a second airstrike in Khurram four hours after the early morning strike that resulted in no casualties. That report could not be confirmed.
Pakistani officials said Thursday that they had again lodged complaints with U.S. officials.
“We will protect our sovereignty in all circumstances,” Abdul Basit, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Islamabad, the capital. Asked what options Pakistan had to retaliate, Basit said: “I leave it to your imagination.”
Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Thursday incident was under review. But he noted that Pakistani officials have acknowledged that their forces opened rifle fire on the NATO helicopters, apparently as a warning.
“You fire at a helicopter in a combat zone, you know, they usually take that as hostile and return fire,” he told reporters.
Lapan said it was “too soon to tell” how the closing of the Torkham border crossing might affect supply lines to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
“We hope that it’s temporary. We hope that we’re going to resolve the issue by discussing it with the Pakistanis,” he said. “We have many different capabilities, routes, ways to resupply so there’s no immediate impact.”
Dorrian said NATO was investigating whether supply lines had been blocked.
“We were not given reasons for blocking supplies for NATO, but it is known to everyone that it is a step following a NATO force attack inside Pakistan,” said Shakirullah Afrid, the president of the Khyber Transporters Association.
On Monday, Pakistan called the strikes a violation of the United Nations mandate for coalition forces in Afghanistan, which requires operations to stop at the border. NATO said Tuesday that helicopters killed more than 30 militants inside Pakistan after Afghan forces were attacked from the Pakistani side of the border.
CIA drone strikes targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan – which Pakistan approves but publicly eschews, according to U.S. officials – are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where many believe they also kill civilians. The United State has sharply escalated such strikes this month, particularly in North Waziristan, which American officials have long asked Pakistan to target.
A Pakistani security official said Panetta had pressed Pakistan for more action in North Waziristan, where U.S. officials suspect militants have been plotting an attack on Europe.
A Pakistani official said that such an offensive might eventually take place but that the Pakistani army is preoccupied now with fighting domestic militants and assisting with aid and reconstruction efforts following this summer’s disastrous flooding.
The Americans “also need to know and realize that the Pakistani army has been engaged almost everywhere in the tribal regions,” the official said.
Pakistan believes the strikes have been carried out as “pressure tactics” meant to force the Pakistani army to conduct operations against al-Qaeda and Afghan insurgents based in the mountainous tribal area of North Waziristan, the official said.
“There is no justification for these attacks and they must come to an end with immediate effect,” the military official said.
Staff writers Ernesto Londo o and Craig Whitlock and special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report. Londoo reported from Kabul.