Angered by U.S. raids into Pakistan in search of terrorists, Pakistan's new president warned Thursday that his country cannot allow its territory to "be violated by our friends."
After placing a picture of his assassinated wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, on the podium, President Asif Ali Zardari told world leaders that such attacks strengthen the extremists the United States and others are trying to destroy.
His speech at the U.N. General Assembly, which often emotionally described Pakistan's battle against terrorists, comes at a tense moment in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Pakistani soldiers fired at U.S. reconnaissance helicopters along the Pakistan-Afghan border Thursday, officials said, sparking a ground battle between American and Pakistani soldiers.
Zardari earlier said his military fired only "flares" at the helicopters that he claimed strayed across the border from Afghanistan leading to an exchange of fire. He played down the incident, in which no injuries were reported.
Differing accounts of exchange
U.S. and Pakistani officials gave differing accounts of the exchange, which apparently involved forces from the United States and its two sometimes quarrelsome allies Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At the U.N. later in the day, Zardari used much stronger language.
"Just as we will not let Pakistan's territory to be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbors, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends," Zardari said.
"Unilateral actions of great powers should not inflame the passions of allies," he said.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan is deemed crucial to U.S.-led efforts to battle extremists in South Asia. The United States has pushed Pakistan to crack down on extremists using the border region with Afghanistan as a safe haven, and has stepped up attacks on suspected militants in Pakistan's frontier area, mostly by missiles fired from unmanned drones operating from Afghanistan.
But the unilateral incursions — especially a ground raid into South Waziristan by American commandos Sept. 3 — have infuriated Pakistanis already wary of their country's ties to the U.S. and have strained ties between Washington and Zardari's new government.
Zardari, in his speech, called on the world to "take notice" that Pakistan is not the cause of terrorism.
Referring to last week's deadly hotel bombing in the Pakistani capital, Zardari said that, "once again, Pakistan is the great victim in the war on terror. And once again our people wonder whether we stand alone."
Pakistan's military has won American praise for a recent offensive against militants. Many in Washington, however, say Pakistan has not done enough with the billions in aid the U.S. has provided to fight terrorists.
Thousands have died
Thousands of soldiers and civilians, Zardari said, have died fighting terrorists. "We have lost more soldiers than all 37 countries that have forces in Afghanistan put together," he said. "We have fought this battle largely alone."
He urged world leaders to "stand with us, just as we stand for the entire civilized world on the front lines of this epic struggle."
Zardari is president of a democratic, civilian government that replaced Pervez Musharraf, a strong U.S. ally and former general who took power in a 1999 coup.
The Bush administration once championed Musharraf as "indispensable." But the U.S. began distancing itself from Musharraf after the election of the civilian government in February and has been careful to signal support for Zardari's rise to power.
Invoking Bhutto's memory, Zardari said: "We may be the targets of international terrorism, but we will never succumb to it."
He warned terrorists "lurking in their caves, plotting their next assault on humanity," that Pakistan will "confront evil with force — our police, our army and our air force."
U.S. Central Command spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith said the helicopters had been escorting U.S. troops and Afghan border police. When the helicopters were fired on, the ground forces fired rounds meant not to hit the Pakistani troops, but "to make certain that they realized they should stop shooting," Smith said from Centcom headquarters in Florida.