/ 4 September 2008

Pakistanis furious over US-led border raid

Pakistan is determined to defend its territorial integrity, the country’s foreign minister said on Thursday, as anger mounted over a raid by United States-led troops on a remote border village.

The pre-dawn helicopter-borne ground assault on the village of Angor Adda on the Afghan border on Wednesday was the first known incursion into Pakistan by US-led troops since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Twenty people, including women and children, were killed, officials said, and a new civilian government, more sensitive to public anger than the previous government, summoned the US ambassador to lodge an angry protest.

Foreign Minister Shah Memood Qureshi told the National Assembly the raid was a shameful violation of rules of engagement agreed with US-led forces in Afghanistan.

”We will not compromise on any violation of our sovereignty,” Qureshi said.

”We will defend and … we have a resolve and we have national consensus in Pakistan to defend our territorial integrity,” he said.

The US, a major source of aid to nuclear-armed Pakistan, has not officially commented on the raid but there is little, if any, doubt it was carried out by US troops.

The US says al-Qaeda and Taliban militants lurk in sanctuaries in north-west Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribal areas on the Afghan border, where they orchestrate attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot violence in the West.

While Pakistan has been a close US ally in the unpopular campaign against terrorism, it rules out incursions by foreign troops.

There have, however, been numerous missile strikes on militants in Pakistan, most believed launched by US-operated pilotless drone aircraft.

Nato’s Afghan peacekeeping force, led by a US general, denied involvement. But the US leads a separate counter-insurgency force in Afghanistan.

Asked about the raid in the South Waziristan region, a Pentagon spokesperson, Bryan Whitman, said: ”I have nothing for you on those reports.”

The CIA referred questions to the Pentagon.

Analysts said the raid will test ties between the allies.

”The people of Pakistan are furious,” said former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed Khan.

”At a minimum they want an apology from the US and an assurance that this kind of operation will not be repeated … It could have an irreparable effect on long-term relations.”

Since the emergence of a civilian-led government after February elections, there has been growing concern that US military operations were becoming more aggressive.

The number of missile attacks launched by drones has multiplied, and there had been fears US forces would use helicopter gunships or put troops on the ground for ”hot pursuit” or commando-style raids to destroy al-Qaeda nests.

”This is what Pakistan feared,” said military affairs analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, adding she expected more US strikes.

”The government has protested, there will be a lot of anger, but the situation will continue … the relationship won’t break down but there’s going to be more bitterness.”

While in the past, the government led by former president Pervez Musharraf could virtually ignore public anger, the civilian government led by the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto will feel pressure.

Asif Ali Zardari, who looks set to become president in an election by legislators on Saturday, is seen as close to the US but ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom harbour anti-American feelings, will expect him to take a stand.

Pakistani military spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas said such raids risked forcing people into the arms of the militants and inciting an uprising in the tribal lands.

Khan said the raid looked to be an act of desperation in the dying days of the Bush administration.

”They are in election mode and apparently the Bush administration is desperate to score points,” he said. — Reuters