Video released of disputed Pakistan airstrike
By Lolita C. Baldor - The Associated Press
Posted : Thursday Jun 12, 2008 7:08:29 EDT

WASHINGTON — The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan released footage 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 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 with a key ally in the war in Afghanistan — a partnership already deeply unpopular among Pakistanis.

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

The grainy, monochrome images show about a half-dozen men firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades from a ridge 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.

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

Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said it was too early to know whether the strike killed 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.

Many Pakistanis blame their nation’s anti-terror alliance with Washington for a rise in extremist violence in Pakistan.

In the northwest city of Peshawar, about 50 members of an Islamic student group peacefully protested the U.S. and American-allied Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Thursday. Bearded men brandished banners with slogans such as “U.S. ally Musharraf, resign immediately.”

Pakistan’s newly elected civilian government is negotiating with tribal elders to secure peace with militants along the Afghan border in hopes of curbing a surge in violence. It is a step back from the heavy-handed tactics pursued by the previous government led by supporters of Musharraf.

Western officials fear the peace deals could give more space for Taliban and al-Qaida militants to operate, but Pakistan insists the negotiations are not with “terrorists” but with militants willing to lay down their arms.

Dawn, a leading daily newspaper in Pakistan, said in an editorial Thursday that the “incident must be sorted out to end the friction” between Pakistan, the U.S. and NATO officials in Afghanistan, but that “Islamabad must insist that those responsible for this ‘cowardly’ attack must be made accountable.”

It also noted a lack of coordination among the authorities involved, adding that domestic political uncertainty in Pakistan might make it unclear who is in charge.