- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 29, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — NATO forces may have been lured into attacking friendly Pakistani border posts in a calculated maneuver by the Taliban, according to preliminary U.S. military reports on the deadliest friendly-fire incident with Pakistan since the Afghanistan war began.

The NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers over the weekend in an apparent case of mistaken identity, the Associated Press has learned.

A joint U.S.-Afghan patrol was attacked by the Taliban early Saturday morning. While pursuing the enemy in the poorly marked border area, the patrol seems to have mistaken one of the Pakistan troop outposts for a militant encampment and called in a NATO gunship and attack helicopters to open fire.

U.S. officials say the reports suggest the Taliban may have deliberately tried to provoke a cross-border firefight that would set back fragile partnerships between the U.S. and NATO forces and Pakistani soldiers at the ill-defined border. Officials described the records on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.

The incident has sent the perpetually difficult U.S.-Pakistan relationship into a tailspin.

On Tuesday, Pakistani Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem called the incident a “deliberate act of aggression” and said it was “next to impossible that NATO” did not know it was attacking Pakistani forces.

Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, announced Monday he had appointed Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, an Air Force special operations officer, to lead the probe of the incident, and said he must include input from the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan as well as representatives from the Afghan and Pakistani governments.

Gen. Nadeem said the Pakistani army had little faith that any investigation will get to the bottom of the incident and may not cooperate with it. He said other joint inquiries into at least two other similar — if less deadly — incidents over the last three years had “come to nothing.”

Gen. Nadeem made the remarks during a briefing with Pakistani journalists and defense analysts in army headquarters. Foreign media were not invited, but two attendees relayed Gen. Nadeem’s comments to the Associated Press.

According to the U.S. military records described to the AP, the joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small-arms fire by Taliban militants.

Before responding, the joint U.S.-Afghan patrol first checked with the Pakistani army, which reported it had no troops in the area, the military account said.

Some two hours later, still hunting the insurgents — who by then apparently had fled in the direction of Pakistani border posts — the U.S. commander spotted what he thought was a militant encampment, with heavy weapons mounted on tripods.

The joint patrol called for the airstrikes at about 2:21 a.m. Pakistani time Saturday (4:21 p.m. EST Friday), not realizing the encampment was apparently the Pakistani border post.

Records show the aerial response included Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship.

U.S. officials are working on the assumption the Taliban chose the location for the first attack to create just such confusion and draw U.S. and Pakistani forces into firing on each other, according to U.S. officials briefed on the operation.

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