NATO has expressed its regret over air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers as the United States sought to repair relations with Islamabad, plunged into fresh crisis over the attack.
Pakistan reacted with fury over the killings of two dozen soldiers, widely interpreted in the local media as a “deliberate” assault by NATO helicopters and fighter jets on two military posts on the Afghan border early on Saturday.
Islamabad conveyed its anger to the United States, blocked NATO convoys from crossing into Afghanistan, ordered a review of its alliance with the US and mulled whether to boycott a key conference on Afghanistan next month.
The Guardian reports that Pakistan has also given the US 15 days to vacate an airbase used as a launchpad for drone strikes in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of enraged Pakistanis took to the streets, burning an effigy of President Barack Obama and setting fire to US flags across the country of 167 million where opposition to the government’s US alliance is rampant.
At the largest rally, attended by 700 people outside the US consulate in the port city of Karachi, protesters shouted “stay away Americans, Pakistan is ours, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our army”.
SCRAMBLING TO ACT
The United States, which depends on Pakistan as a vital lifeline to supply 130,000 foreign troops fighting in landlocked Afghanistan, on Sunday scrambled to salvage the alliance, backing a full inquiry and expressing condolences.
NATO also sought to soothe Islamabad’s rage, but stopped short of issuing a full apology to Pakistan for the “tragic, unintended” killings.
A Western official said allies were trying to ascertain “exactly” what Pakistan’s public position meant and to prevent lasting damage as a result of the suspended supply lines into Afghanistan.
It also remains unclear exactly what happened in the early hours of Saturday in Pakistan’s tribal district of Mohmand.
WHO FIRED FIRST?
Investigators are to examine whether Afghan and American troops along the border may have been fired upon first – whether by insurgents or soldiers – and to what extent their operation was coordinated with Pakistan.
NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen issued a statement, saying he had written to Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
“I have written … to make it clear that the deaths of Pakistani personnel are as unacceptable and deplorable as the deaths of Afghan and international personnel,” he said. “This was a tragic unintended incident.”
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar earlier telephoned US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to convey a “deep sense of rage” as a joint funeral was held for the dead soldiers, their coffins draped in the national flag.
Khar said attacks on military outposts were “totally unacceptable”, contravened international law and violated Pakistani sovereignty.
She spoke to Clinton to inform her of Pakistan’s response, formulated at an emergency meeting of cabinet ministers and military chiefs, saying that Pakistan was forced “to revisit the terms of engagement”.
Pakistan said its attendance at a conference of more than 90 delegations due in Germany on December 5 was “being examined”, although a boycott is considered unlikely given how much Pakistan stands to lose by not attending.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Clinton offered their “deepest condolences” and backed “NATO’s intention to investigate immediately”.
They stressed the importance of the US-Pakistani partnership and pledged to remain in close contact with Pakistan “through this challenging time”.
Pakistan’s army chief Ashfaq Kayani, who had hosted the US commander in Afghanistan for talks on coordination only one day before the attack, led the mourners in funeral prayers in the northwestern city of Peshawar.