- Associated Press - Monday, September 27, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | Pakistan vehemently protested NATO helicopter strikes that killed more than 70 militants, saying Monday that U.N. rules do not allow the copters to cross into its airspace even in hot pursuit of insurgents.

NATO said it launched the strikes in self-defense after militants attacked a small security post in Afghanistan near the border.

Although unmanned CIA drones frequently attack insurgents hiding on the Pakistani side, where coalition forces are banned from fighting, strikes by manned NATO helicopters are uncommon there.

Pakistan’s protest, which plays to anti-American sentiment in that country, contrasts with its muted criticism of a sharp rise in suspected drone attacks in North Waziristan — a rugged, mountainous tribal area of Pakistan largely controlled by militants who stage attacks on coalition troops across the border.

The dispute over the strikes only fuels unease between the two countries. The Pakistani military has fought Pakistani Taliban fighters, but it has resisted pressure to move against the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network. The Haqqanis, who control vast stretches of territory in North Waziristan and the bordering Afghan province of Khost, carry out attacks in Afghanistan — but not in Pakistan.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan said the U.S. followed the appropriate protocol in the situation.

“Our forces have the right of self-defense,” Col. Lapan said. “They were being attacked, and they responded.”

U.S. officials say there is an agreement to notify Pakistani officials of cross-border incidents to allow the coalition to defend itself. In this instance, coalition forces could not reach the Pakistani military before they needed to defend Afghan National Security Forces under attack, a NATO official said on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose the information publicly.

Pakistan denied that such an understanding exists with the military coalition, or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

“These incidents are a clear violation and breach of the U.N. mandate under which ISAF operates,” Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “The said mandate terminates/finishes at the Afghanistan border. There are no agreed ‘hot pursuit’ rules. Any impression to the contrary is not factually correct. Such violations are unacceptable.”

NATO confirmed that it launched two airstrikes on Saturday and a third attack on Monday — all in tribal regions of Pakistan located opposite an increasingly dangerous area in eastern Afghanistan. Initially, the coalition said NATO helicopters chased insurgents into Pakistani airspace.

But late Monday, the NATO official said that while Pakistani airspace was breached during the first strike, initial indications were that copters involved in the second and third strikes fired from Afghan airspace and hit targets on the Pakistan side of the border.

The first strike occurred after insurgents, firing from Pakistan, attacked an Afghan security force at outpost Narizah in Khost province. Abdul Hakim Ishaqzie, the provincial police chief in Khost, said police at checkpoints at the border came under attack, engaged the militants in a gunbattle and then called for air support.

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