NYT : NATO Accused of Civilian Deaths Inside Pakistan

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

NATO Accused of Civilian Deaths Inside Pakistan

By PIR ZUBAIR SHAH and JANE PERLEZ | September 4, 2008

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — Two helicopters carrying American-led international forces landed in a Pakistani village in South Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan in the early hours of Wednesday morning and the soldiers opened fire on villagers, killing seven people, according to a spokesman for the Pakistani military.

The account by the spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, broadcast on Pakistani television on Wednesday evening, described what appeared to be a first commando attack by NATO forces against the Taliban inside Pakistan.

Pakistan has lodged a “strong protest” to the American government and reserved the right of “self defense and retaliation,” the general said. Local residents said most of the dead were women and children but this could not be immediately confirmed.

The Bush administration has admonished Pakistan in recent months for not doing enough to curb attacks by the Taliban, who keep bases inside the Pakistani tribal region and cross the border to attack American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.

Coalition forces have sent missiles into the border region of Pakistan to strike against militants but commando operations by American forces into the tribal region have been under discussion in Washington. The action by the coalition forces Wednesday in the border village appeared to be an effort to stanch the Taliban raids.

According to an earlier description of the military action Wednesday given by a Taliban commander and local residents, the latest attack was aimed at three houses in the village of Jalal Khel in the Angoor Adda area of South Waziristan, near a known stronghold of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and less than a mile from the border with Afghanistan.

The governor of the North-West Frontier Province, Owais Ahmed Ghani, said the helicopter attack occurred at about 3 a.m. and killed 20 people.

The governor, the most powerful civilian leader in the province which abuts South Waziristan, condemned the attacks and called for retaliation by Pakistan.

An American military spokesman at Bagram airbase declined to comment on the reports. The spokesman did not deny that the attack had occurred. Often, a statement of no comment by American and NATO spokesmen in Afghanistan, where NATO and American forces are fighting militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, indicates that the coalition forces were involved in a cross-border attack.

General Abbas said the Pakistani military was angered by the coalition forces because it created “new problems” for the army in the region.

In a telephone interview, General Abbas said the soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force, which is made up of NATO and American forces, had created “new problems” for the Pakistani soldiers based along the border.

By killing civilians, General Abbas said there was now a great risk of an uprising by the tribesmen who supported the Pakistani soldiers in the border area. These tribesmen, who were opposed to the Taliban and supportive of the Pakistani forces, would now be extremely angry, he said.

“Such action are completely counter productive and can result in huge losses because it gives the civilians a cause to rise against the Pakistani military,” he said.

The Taliban commander, known by the nom de guerre Commander Malang, said the attack took place close to a Pakistani military position on the border and killed 15 people. But the Pakistani military took no action, he said.

According to Commander Malang, three helicopters flew into the Pakistani side of the border and one of them, carrying soldiers, landed. Soldiers who came out of the helicopter opened fire on people in the village, he said, while the other two helicopters hovered overhead.

The commander, who is based in the town of Wana, said he was not at the scene. He received the description via radio, he said. The soldiers “killed innocent people” in the village located adjacent to a security post of the Pakistani Frontier Corps. There was no way to immediately independently confirm the account of the Taliban leader.

The incursion of NATO and American aircraft and helicopters into Pakistan in so-called hot pursuit of Taliban militants is a contentious issue for Pakistan.

Publicly, the Pakistani authorities say their country’s sovereignty must be respected and always condemn such intrusions.

At the same time, Washington has become more vocal about increased attacks by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan to fight coalition forces.

There had been growing expectation among Pakistanis that NATO units would respond by attacking more forcefully into Pakistani territory.

The Angoor Adda area is on the border with Afghanistan, and its mud-walled compounds are known as a center of Taliban and Al Qaeda strength.

Sher Khan, a phone company employee in Angoor Adda, said in a telephone interview that 19 people were killed in the raid. He said most of the dead were women and children.

A Pakistani intelligence official in South Waziristan said in a telephone interview that a group of Taliban had crossed the border into Afghanistan before an attack late Tuesday. In response, the Afghan National Army called for air support, the intelligence official said, speaking in return for customary anonymity.

The NATO helicopters chased the Taliban militants across the border back into South Waziristan, according to the intelligence official’s account.

But the Taliban militants escaped, the official said.

Pir Zubair Shah reported from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, and Jane Perlez from Islamabad, Pakistan.