- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan | Pakistani soldiers fired at American reconnaissance helicopters that were escorting Afghan and U.S. ground troops along the volatile border Thursday, sparking a five-minute ground battle between the countries that have been allies in the war on terrorism, officials said.

Attempting to play down the incident - the first serious exchange with Pakistani forces acknowledged by the U.S. - Pakistan’s president said only “flares” were fired at foreign helicopters that he said had strayed across the border from Afghanistan into his country.

The exchange, which could have easily escalated into a much bigger conflict, could heighten tensions at a time the U.S. is stepping up cross-border operations in a region known as a haven for Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

It also came as new Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was in New York meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai was scheduled to meet with President Bush on Friday.

Later addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Zardari warned that his country cannot allow its territory to “be violated by our friends.”

Two American OH-58 reconnaissance helicopters, known as Kiowas, were on a routine patrol in the eastern province of Khost when they took small-arms fire from the Pakistani border post, said Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace, a U.S. military spokesman in Bagram. There was no damage to aircraft or crew, officials said.

U.S. Central Command spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith said the helicopters had been escorting U.S. troops and Afghan border police. When the helicopters were fired on, the ground forces fired rounds meant not to hit the Pakistani troops, but “to make certain that they realized they should stop shooting,” Adm. Smith said from Centcom headquarters in Florida.

The Pakistani forces fired back during a skirmish that lasted about five minutes. The joint patrol was moving about a mile inside Afghanistan, with the helicopters flying above, Adm. Smith said.

The Pakistani military disputed the U.S. version, saying its troops fired warning shots when the two helicopters crossed over the border - and that the U.S. helicopters fired back.

“When the helicopters passed over our border post and were well within Pakistani territory, [our] security forces [fired] anticipatory warning shots. On this, the helicopters returned fire and flew back,” a Pakistani military statement said.

In New York, Mr. Zardari said his military fired only “flares” at foreign helicopters that he claimed had strayed across the border from Afghanistan. He said his forces fired only as a way “to make sure that they know that they crossed the border line.”

“Sometimes the border is so mixed that they don’t realize they have crossed the border,” he said before his meeting with Miss Rice.

The Pakistani military said the matter was “being resolved” in consultations between the army and the NATO force in Afghanistan. A NATO statement said the militaries were “working together to resolve the matter.”

The shooting comes amid a string of cross-border incidents, including a raid by American commandos into Pakistan’s tribal areas Sept. 3 that angered many in Pakistan, and the apparent crash-landing because of possible mechanical failure of a U.S. spy drone this week in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

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