Pakistani soldiers who survived a Nato air strike on two military border posts that killed 24 of their colleagues insisted on Sunday that they had not opened fire across the Afghan border and were the victims of an unprovoked attack by American aircraft.
Nato has so far stopped short of apologising for Saturday’s early morning raid but has expressed regret for what it termed “a tragic unintended incident”, that has taken relations between Islamabad and Washington to the brink of collapse, and prompted furious protests in Pakistani cities.
It is understood that the attack, on two posts near the Afghan-Pakistani border, was carried out during a US and Afghan special forces operation to clear alleged Taliban training camps inside Afghanistan.
Afghan officials on Sunday claimed their forces had called in an air strike after coming under attack from the Pakistani side of the border.
However, The Daily Telegraph spoke to wounded survivors of the raid, who insisted they were victims of an unprovoked attack.
Amirzeb Khan, 23, said the area around the checkpoints, about two miles from the border, had been cleared of militants and the night had been quiet.
The attack, he said, came at about 2am. They counted four helicopters.
“Initially, we thought that the attackers were Taliban and we took positions to retaliate but then saw that at least four helicopters were shelling from above,” he said from his bed at the Combined Military Hospital in Peshawar, where he was being treated for shrapnel injuries to his abdomen.
Hameedullah Wazir described a scene of chaos as an apparently indiscriminate rain of rockets exploded around the checkpoint, waking sleeping troops. He said the survivors simply ran.
“We didn’t find time to respond as everything took place so quickly that we were unable to fight back,” he said.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato Secretary General, said the attack was “unacceptable and deplorable”.
“I offer my deepest condolences and sympathy to the families of the Pakistani officers and soldiers who lost their lives or were injured, and to the government and people of Pakistan, following the regrettable incident along the Afghan-Pakistani border,” he said.
American helicopters have conducted multiple attacks in Pakistan while in “hot pursuit” of Taliban and Haqqani network militants, who use the country’s mountainous tribal areas as safe havens after launching cross-border raids.
Yesterday, a local Afghan official accused the Pakistani troops at the border outpost of helping the Taliban.
“They were supporting the Taliban and keeping them safe. They were no better than Taliban themselves,” said Syed Sekander Shah, a member of Kunar’s provincial council.
The attack comes with relations already at a low ebb. In January a CIA contractor shot dead two Pakistani men before being released on payment of blood money and four months later US special forces shot dead Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.
The latest crisis immediately prompted the Pakistani government to announce it would review all diplomatic and military ties, and to order the US to vacate an air base from where the CIA has been flying drones.
Pakistani authorities have also closed their border crossings to Nato convoys in protest. The land routes carry almost 50% of supplies to the forces in Afghanistan.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani military and political analyst, said the relationship might still be salvaged but America aggression made it more and more difficult for the country’s broadly pro-US leadership to justify staying close to Washington.
“This is the gravest crisis for the relationship since 2001,” he said.
“The military and the civil government are the only ones making a case for relations with America, and now this happens, which will only strengthen those campaigning for an end to co-operation.” Protesters were out in force yesterday in the capital Islamabad and in Karachi, where thousands of people gathered outside the American consulate, shouting “Down with America” and accusing Nato of a deliberate attack on Pakistani troops.
Two senior US Senators urged the White House to take a harder diplomatic line with Pakistan and potentially withhold funding after it ordered American forces out of a base used for drone strikes.
“There’s a lot of diplomacy that has to occur and it has to be tough diplomacy in the sense that they need to understand that our support for them financially is dependent upon their cooperation with us,” said Senator Jon Kyl, the second ranking Republican in the Senate.
His comments were echoed by his Democrat counterpart, Senator Dick Durbin, who said American troops were caught between “the incompetence and maybe corruption of Afghanistan and the complicity in parts of Pakistan”.