Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pakistan Halts NATO Supplies to Afghanistan

Pakistan shut down the main land route for NATO supplies into Afghanistan on Sept. 30, accusing the alliance's helicopters of killing Pakistani soldiers in a fourth cross-border attack this week.

NATO said aircraft entered Pakistani airspace earlier in the day in self-defense and killed "several armed individuals" after the crews believed they had been fired at from the ground.

The Pakistani government said it was investigating the incident in the Kurram district of Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt, which Washington has branded an al-Qaida headquarters and hub of militants fighting in Afghanistan.

The region is being targeted by a record number of U.S. drone strikes and was reportedly where al-Qaida hatched a plot to attack cities in Britain, France and Germany uncovered by Western intelligence agencies.

"We have suspended NATO supply trucks for the time being due to security reasons," an official in Pakistan's Frontier Corps paramilitary unit told AFP in the northwestern city of Peshawar on condition of anonymity.

Officials at the Torkham border crossing in Pakistan's Khyber district and a U.S. diplomat confirmed that NATO convoys were not being allowed to cross.

Khyber is on the main NATO supply route into Afghanistan, where more than 152,000 U.S. and NATO forces are fighting a nine-year Taliban insurgency.

The Pakistani military said two helicopters from Afghanistan crossed the border and fired on a Frontier Corps (FC) outpost, about 200 meters (650 feet) inside Pakistan.

Six soldiers manning the post "retaliated through rifle fire to indicate that the helicopters were crossing into our territory," it said.

"Instead of heeding to the warning, helicopters went to fire two missiles, destroying the post. As a result, three FC soldiers have embraced shahadat (martyrdom) and three have been injured."

But NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement: "The aircraft received what the crews assessed as effective small arms fire from individuals just across the border in Pakistan."

They then responded in self-defense, NATO said.

Pakistan condemned all cross-border air strikes by NATO helicopters pursuing militants into its territory as a violation of sovereignty.

"U.S. and ISAF forces should share credible and actionable information with Pakistan's forces enabling them to take the required action against the possible threat," said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Although Pakistan is a key U.S. ally, its powerful military has been accused in the West of playing a double game by supporting Afghan Taliban.

Washington considers Pakistan's border areas with Afghanistan the most dangerous place on Earth and has this month significantly stepped up a covert drone war on Taliban and al-Qieda-linked militants holed up in the area.

More than 20 such strikes have been recorded in September, including one last Saturday believed to have killed Sheikh Fateh, the purported al-Qaida operations chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan said that visiting CIA chief Leon Panetta promised to respect its sovereignty and examine reports of NATO helicopter raids.

Owais Ahmed Ghani, governor of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, condemned the attack as a "blatant act of aggression" and called on Pakistan to review the conduct of the war on militancy.

It was the fourth such attack or cross-border fire reported in a week.

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan and U.S. drone strikes in the tribal belt are the subject of fierce criticism and suspicion in Pakistan.

The Pentagon said Sept. 30 the recent strikes were marked by "communication breakdowns" as officers were not able to contact their Pakistani counterparts about the operation until afterwards.

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