ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A senior U.S. military official has acknowledged that American forces conducted a raid inside Pakistan, in the first known foreign ground assault in the country against a suspected Taliban haven.
The Pakistan government condemned an incursion that it said killed at least 15 people.
The American official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of cross border operations, told The Associated Press that the raid occurred on Pakistani soil about one mile from the Afghan border. The official didn't provide any other details.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry protested saying U.S.-led troops flew in from Afghanistan for the attack on a village in the country's wild tribal belt. A Pakistan army spokesman warned that the apparent escalation from recent foreign 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 Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.
U.S. military and civilian officials declined to respond directly to Pakistan's complaints. But one official, a South Asia expert who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name, suggested the target of any raid like that reported Wednesday would have to be extremely important to risk an almost assured "big backlash" from Pakistan.
"You have to consider that something like this will be a more-or-less once-off opportunity for which we will have to pay a price in terms of Pakistani cooperation," the official said.
Suspected U.S. missile attacks killed at least two Al Qaeda commanders this year in the same region, drawing protests from Pakistan's government that its sovereignty was under attack. U.S. officials did not acknowledge any involvement in those attacks.
But American commanders have been complaining publicly that Pakistan puts too little pressure on militant groups that are blamed for mounting violence in Afghanistan, stirring speculation that U.S. forces might lash out across the frontier.
Some administration officials have been pressing U.S. President George W. Bush to direct U.S. troops in Afghanistan to be more aggressive in pursuing militants into Pakistan on foot as part of a proposed radical shift in regional counterterrorism strategy, the AP learned. The debate was the subject of a late July meeting at the White House of some of Bush's top national security advisers.
Circumstances surrounding Wednesday's raid weren't clear, but U.S. rules of engagement allow American troops to pursue militants across the border into Pakistan when they are attacked.
However, Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said hot pursuit wasn't an issue, adding that the attack "was completely unprovoked." He said Pakistani troops were near the village and saw and heard nothing to suggest the U.S. forces were pursuing insurgents.
The raid comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Pakistan government which is trying to overcome political divisions and choose a new president on the one hand, while the army is battling the militants on the other.
Pakistani officials said they were lodging strong protests with the U.S. government and its military representative in Islamabad about Wednesday's raid in the South Waziristan area, a notorious hot bed of militant activity.
The Foreign Ministry called the strike "a gross violation of Pakistan's territory," saying it could "undermine the very basis of cooperation and may fuel the fire of hatred and violence that we are trying to extinguish."
Prior to the U.S. military confirming the U.S. raid, Pakistan government and military officials had insisted that either the NATO force or the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan — both commanded by American generals — were responsible. A spokesman for NATO troops in Afghanistan denied any involvement.
Abbas, the Pakistani army spokesman, said the attack was the first incursion onto Pakistani soil by troops from the foreign forces that ousted Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S.
He said the attack would undermine Pakistan's efforts to isolate Islamic extremists and could threaten NATO's major supply lines, which snake from Pakistan's Indian Ocean port of Karachi through the tribal region into Afghanistan.
American officials say destroying militant sanctuaries in Pakistani tribal regions is key to defeating Taliban-led militants in Afghanistan whose insurgency has strengthened every year since the fundamentalist militia was ousted for harboring bin Laden.
Citing witness and intelligence reports, Abbas said troops flew in on at least one big CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter, blasted their way into several houses and gunned down men they found there.
He said there was no evidence that any of those killed were insurgents or that the raiders abducted any militant leader, but he acknowledged Pakistan's military had no firsthand account.
There were differing reports on how many people were killed. The provincial governor claimed 20 civilians, including women and children, died. Army and intelligence officials, as well as residents, said 15 people were killed.
Habib Khan Wazir, an area resident, said he heard helicopters, then an exchange of gunfire.
"Later, I saw 15 bodies inside and outside two homes. They had been shot in the head," Wazir said by phone. He claimed all the dead were civilians.