American forces conducted a raid inside Pakistan on Wednesday, a senior U.S. military official said, in the first known foreign ground assault against a suspected Taliban haven. Pakistan's government condemned the action, saying it killed at least 15 people.
The American official, speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of cross border operations, said the raid occurred about a mile inside Pakistan. The official didn't provide details on casualties.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry protested the attack, and an army spokesman warned that the apparent escalation from recent missile strikes on militant targets along the Afghan border would further anger Pakistanis and undercut cooperation in the war against terrorist groups.
The boldness of the thrust fed speculation about the intended target. But it was unclear whether any extremist leader was killed or captured in the operation, which occurred in one of the militant strongholds dotting a frontier region considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.
In violence elsewhere across the country, snipers fired on the prime minister's limousine and the army said it killed two dozen militants in a northwestern valley.
American officials say Pakistan's tribal regions along the Afghan border have turned into havens for al-Qaida and Taliban-linked militants involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The attack strained relations between the United States and Pakistan's new civilian government in the days before it elects a successor to ousted President Pervez Musharraf.
Officials gave differing accounts of Wednesday's pre-dawn raid in the South Waziristan region, part of the tribal belt where officials suspect Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri are hiding. It was unclear whether any militant leaders were killed or captured.
Nadeem Kiani, spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, told Reuters that suspected U.S. commandos were acting on faulty intelligence that was never shared with Pakistani forces inside the country.
"The intelligence was not correct and the people who have been killed are unarmed civilians, not militants, and those include women and children," Kiani said, adding the raid was a violation of Pakistan's sovereign territory.
"Being an ally, any action taken on this side of the border should have been taken by Pakistani forces. There was a need to share that information with the Pakistani side," he added.
Pakistan's military said ground forces from NATO's International Security Assistant Force in Afghanistan were ferried to the raid by two helicopters, The Associated Press reported.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said it was the first incursion into Pakistani territory by foreign forces, who previously limited their attacks on the tribal areas to airstrikes.
He said the strike would undermine Pakistan's efforts to wean away tribes from hardcore militants and could even threaten NATO's major supply lines, which snake through the border region, and Pakistan's ability to maintain frontier military posts.
The Foreign Ministry called the raid "a grave provocation" and "a gross violation of Pakistan's territory." It said a strong diplomatic protest was being lodged over the "immense loss of civilian life."
"Such actions are counterproductive and certainly do not help our joint efforts to fight terrorism," it said. "On the contrary, they undermine the very basis of cooperation and may fuel the fire of hatred and violence that we are trying to extinguish."
First Lt. Nathan Perry, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said it had "no information to give" about the incident, and the U.S. embassy in Islamabad declined to comment. NATO denied dispatching its forces.
In the cover of darkness
The governor of North West Frontier Province, the top administrator for the tribal belt, said up to 20 people died, including women and children.
Army spokesman Maj. Murad Khan said 15 people died, including seven civilians. He wouldn't say whether the others were suspected militants.
Habib Khan Wazir, who lives in the area, said he heard helicopters, then an exchange of fire.
"Later, I saw 15 bodies inside and outside two homes. They had been shot in the head," Wazir told the AP by telephone.
He claimed the dead included women and children and that all were civilians.
"There was darkness at the time when the Americans came and killed our innocent people," Wazir said. "We would have not allowed them to go back alive if they had come to our village in daylight."
Residents said the dead were buried Wednesday.
In Washington, officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House wouldn't confirm earlier Wednesday that the raid had taken place.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to comment. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said: "I have nothing for you."
And officials allowed the Pakistani foreign ministry complaint to stand without public response, an indication of how politically sensitive the incident could be for the Islamabad government.
The civilian government — under pressure from Washington — has also taken a tough line against militants, seeking to persuade the public that security forces are fighting Islamic extremists for Pakistan's sake, not Washington's.
Violence reported elsewhere
In a mark of the country's precarious stability, snipers fired on the motorcade for Pakistan's prime minister on Wednesday as it drove to the airport to pick him up, striking his car window at least twice, officials said.
Neither Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani nor his staff were in the vehicles.
Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the banned militant organization Tahrik-e-Taliban, claimed responsibility and pledged more attacks in retaliation for army operations in tribal areas and the Swat valley.
The attack was the second apparent assassination attempt in Pakistan in a week.
Shots were fired last week at a car carrying Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in Pakistan's troubled northwest, as she was headed to her office in the city of Peshawar. No one was hurt in that shooting.
Murad Khan, the army spokesman, said security forces killed 25 to 30 militants in an offensive Wednesday against militants in Swat, a former tourist destination were Islamic extremists tried to seize control last year.