- Associated Press - Monday, September 27, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Pakistan disputed NATO’s claim Monday that its forces have the right of hot pursuit across the Afghan border after coalition helicopters launched air strikes that killed more than 50 militants who had escaped into Pakistan following an attack on an Afghan security post.

Pakistan said it had strongly protested to NATO over the air strikes, which a coalition spokesman justified on grounds of “self-defense.” Pakistan is sensitive about attacks on its territory, but U.S. officials have said they have the right to cross a few miles into Pakistani airspace if they are attacked and in hot pursuit of a target.

Pakistan denied Monday such an understanding exists.

Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a press release the mandate of foreign troops in Afghanistan ends at the Afghan border and said the strikes were a violation of its sovereignty. Pakistan said that unless corrective measures are implemented, it will have to “consider response options.”

NATO reported it launched two air strikes on Saturday, and Pakistani intelligence officials reported a third attack on Monday — all in tribal regions located opposite an increasingly volatile eastern region of Afghanistan. It was not clear which militant group was targeted, but the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani faction, which launches frequent attacks on NATO and Afghan forces, is particularly active there.

The first strike took place after insurgents based in Pakistan attacked the outpost in Afghanistan’s Khost province, right across the border from Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region, said U.S. Capt. Ryan Donald, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

“The ISAF helicopters did cross into Pakistan territory to engage the insurgents,” Capt. Donald said. “ISAF maintains the right to self-defense, and that’s why they crossed the Pakistan border.”

Another ISAF spokesman, U.S. Maj. Michael Johnson, said the first air strike killed 49 militants. NATO officials were able to assess the number of militants killed in the airstrikes by using gun cameras mounted on the helicopters, according to ISAF.

Abdul Hakim Ishaqzie, the provincial police chief in Khost, cited a higher death toll of around 60 militants. He said police at checkpoints at the border came under attack, engaged the militants in a gun battle and then called for help, prompting the helicopter strikes.

The air strikes occurred on the Pakistan side as militants fled, but police said they were able to go in and count the bodies, collecting ammunition and weapons from the battlefield.

A second attack occurred when helicopters returned to the border area and were attacked by insurgents based in Pakistan, Donald said. It killed at least four militants.

“The helicopters returned to the scene and they received direct small arms fire and, once again operating in self-defense, they engaged the insurgents,” Donald said.

Pakistani intelligence officials said two NATO helicopters carried out a third strike inside Pakistani territory on Monday morning, killing five militants and wounding nine others.

The strike occurred in the village of Mata Sanger in the Kurram tribal area, which is directly across the border from the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Nangarhar, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

NATO would not immediately confirm that.

Story Continues →