Video: Pentagon defends airstrike on Afghan-Pakistan border

NBC News and news services
updated 6/12/2008 4:53:39 PM ET 2008-06-12T20:53:39

The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan released video Thursday of a skirmish with militants that Pakistan claims resulted in a deadly airstrike on one of its border posts.

Pakistan says 11 of its troops died when a bomb fell on the Gorparai post in the Mohmand frontier region on Tuesday. It lodged a strong diplomatic protest and called the strike a "completely unprovoked and cowardly act."

But Pakistani and U.S. officials have given widely differing accounts of an event that threatens to further sour relations between the key allies in Washington's war on terrorism — a partnership already deeply unpopular among Pakistanis.

To support its version, the coalition on Thursday took the unusual step of releasing excerpts of a video shot by a surveillance drone circling above the mountainous battle zone.

But a U.S. official told NBC News that there is no video of the bomb that apparently hit the Pakistanis.

According to this official, the video released was taken by an unmanned Army drone of four bombs dropped by two Air Force F-15s. The official said the bombs that may have killed the Pakistanis were dropped from a B-1 bomber.

The U.S. Central Command is expected to announce that a joint U.S.-Pakistani investigation into the incident will begin soon.

No Pakistani checkpoint visible
The grainy, monochrome images released Thursday appear to show about a half-dozen men firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades from a ridge, allegedly at coalition troops off camera in the valley below.

According to the voiceover, the ridge is in Afghanistan's Kunar province, about 200 yards from the Pakistan border and close to the Gorparai checkpoint.

Neither the checkpoint nor any other structures are visible in the video excerpts.

The voiceover says the coalition forces were on a reconnaissance mission and returned fire in a bid to break contact and move to a point where a helicopter could pluck them to safety.

It shows the "anti-Afghan militants" moving to a position identified as inside Pakistan and the impact of a bomb, which the voiceover says killed two of them.

The survivors then fled into a ravine, where three more bombs were dropped, nearly three hours after the clash began. The voiceover said all the militants were killed. One of the bombs fell off screen, and U.S. officials said about a dozen bombs were dropped in all.

Apologies from U.S. diplomats
On Wednesday, U.S. diplomats offered apologies for the reported casualties. But the Pentagon insisted that the drone footage of the bombings showed they hit their intended targets.

Meanwhile, President Bush's national security adviser said Thursday that U.S. officials "have not been able to corroborate" claims by Pakistani officials that a U.S. skirmish with militants along the Afghan-Pakistani border killed 11 Pakistani troops.

"Should it be true, obviously we would be very saddened by that loss," national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters traveling with Bush in Europe.

Reflecting how the incident has put the already fragile U.S.-Pakistan relationship on shaky ground, Hadley noted that Pakistan has been an important ally in the war on terror but added that "we hope" that will continue.

"One of the problems is that it is still not exactly clear what happened," he said. "The reports quite frankly, even from sources within the United States, are conflicting."

Hadley said that the account the U.S. believes is true is this: there was an operation on the Afghan side of the border by "anti-coalition forces" that threatened coalition personnel. The forces then went "back into Pakistan" and the coalition fighters "tracked and struck those forces."

"That's what we believe happened," Hadley said.

'Legitimate strike'
Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said it was too early to know whether the strike killed the 11 Pakistani troops.

"Every indication we have is that this was a legitimate strike against forces that had attacked members of the coalition," he said.

Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas gave a different account.

Abbas said the fighting broke out after Afghan government soldiers who had occupied a mountaintop position in a disputed border zone Monday acceded to a Pakistan request to withdraw.

"They were on their way back and they were attacked by insurgents in their own territory," Abbas said.

He said the Afghans then called in coalition airstrikes, which hit the Pakistani Frontier Corps post across the border.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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