Enraged by a NATO cross-border air attack that killed 24 soldiers, Pakistan is considering withdrawing its support for the U.S.-led war on terror if its sovereignty is violated again, the foreign minister suggested in comments published on Thursday.
The South Asian nation has already shown its anger over the weekend strike by pulling out of an international conference in Germany next week on Afghanistan. It stood by that decision on Wednesday, depriving the talks of a central player in efforts to bring peace to its neighbor.
"Enough is enough. The government will not tolerate any incident of spilling even a single drop of any civilian or soldier's blood," The News newspaper quoted Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar as telling a Senate committee on foreign affairs.
"Pakistan's role in the war on terror must not be overlooked," Khar said, suggesting Pakistan could end its support for the U.S. war on militancy. Despite opposition at home, Islamabad backed Washington after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Pakistan says it has paid the highest price of any country engaged in the war on militancy. Thousands of soldiers and police have been killed.
"The sacrifices rendered by Pakistan in the war on terror are more than any other country," Khar was quoted as saying. "But that does not mean we will compromise on our sovereignty."
Pakistan military sources also said it had cancelled a visit by a 15-member delegation, led by the Director General of the Joint Staff, Lieutenant-General Mohammad Asif, to the United States that was to have taken place this week.
NATO helicopters and fighter jets attacked two military border posts in northwest Pakistan on Saturday in the worst incident of its kind since 2001.
Pakistani and American officials have offered different accounts of the airstrike. But it seems clear that a breakdown in communication contributed to the tragedy.
According to U.S. military records described to The Associated Press, the incident occurred when a joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small arms fire by Taliban militants. Before responding, the joint U.S.-Afghan patrol first checked with the Pakistani army, which reported it had no troops in the area, the military account said.
Pakistani officials have refuted this claim and said U.S. forces must have known they were attacking Pakistani soldiers because the posts were clearly marked on maps given to NATO and the two sides were in contact immediately before and during the airstrikes.
Pakistani military sources said the attack came in two waves.
"The attack began at around 12:05 a.m. and lasted for about 30 minutes, when the contacts were made and it was discontinued," one source told Reuters.
The source said NATO helicopter gunships and jet fighters came back after 35 minutes. The Pakistanis returned fire in a battle that lasted for another 45 minutes.
When it was over, 24 Pakistani soldiers were dead and 13 wounded.
The two posts in question — Volcano and Boulder — are perched about 8,000 feet high on a ridgeline near the Afghan border. They are among about 28 such posts in Mohmand Agency set up to prevent cross-border movements by Taliban militants, another military source said.
The source said that there were no militants in the area, however, because they had been flushed out by a Pakistani military operation conducted over the year.
'Not a deliberate attack'
The top U.S. military officer denied allegations by a senior Pakistani army official that the NATO attack was a deliberate act of aggression.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Reuters in an interview: "The one thing I will say publicly and categorically is that this was not a deliberate attack.
The army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history and sets security and foreign policy, faced strong criticism from both the Pakistani public and the United States after Osama bin Laden was killed in a secret raid by U.S. special forces in May.
The al-Qaida leader had apparently been living in a Pakistani garrison town for years.
Pakistanis criticized the military for failing to protect their sovereignty and U.S. officials wondered whether some members of military intelligence had sheltered him. Pakistan's government and military said they had no idea bin Laden was in the country.
The army seems to have regained its confidence and won the support of the public and the government in a country where anti-American sentiment often runs high.
Protests have taken place in several cities every day since the NATO strike along the poorly-defined border, where militants often plan and stage attacks.
Meanwhile, Pakistan resumed some cooperation with U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to prevent another cross-border incident from escalating, a spokesman said Wednesday.
NATO said Islamabad communicated with the alliance to prevent an exchange of fire over the border late Tuesday from turning into another international incident.
U.S. forces received mortar and recoilless rifle fire from an area just inside the Pakistan border, said U.S. spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura. U.S. forces returned fire in self-defense while confirming with the Pakistani military that it wasn't involved. No damage or casualties were reported by the U.S. or Pakistan, he said.
German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, expressed hope that Pakistan's cooperation in resolving the incident in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province signaled the two sides could recover from the recent tragedy.
The Pakistani military did not immediately respond to request for comment on the latest incident.