63 die as militants battle Pakistani forces
Government voices concern as US rift grows
ISLAMABAD — Islamist militants who flowed out of Afghanistan fought for a second day with Pakistani security forces yesterday in one of the deadliest clashes on the Pakistan side of the frontier in months. Authorities said 63 people were dead.
Signaling a deepening of the rift with the United States and voicing Islamabad’s anger over the attacks, the government issued a statement expressing strong concern about the attack.
Pakistan’s military had initially said the assault was the work of about 200 militants, but the government statement put the number at between 300 and 400. It said the fighters “attacked villages and burned schools.’’
The militant attack and Pakistan’s reaction contradicted the US narrative about the poorly defined and porous border. Typically, militant cross-frontier movements originate in Pakistan, leaving the United States and NATO to gripe at Islamabad over its failure to stop the infiltration.
The new battles found Pakistan the aggrieved party, lending credence to Pakistani Army commanders’ complaints that NATO was failing to crack down on militants on the Afghan side of the rugged frontier.
The government statement said the foreign secretary had “stressed the need for stern action’’ against militants and their hideouts in Afghanistan and against support for the militants.
The fight started when the militants crossed into Pakistan on Wednesday. By nightfall yesterday, 25 soldiers, 35 attackers, and 3 civilians had died in fighting, according to regional police chief Ghulam Mohammed.
Beyond emphasizing the difficulties of fighting an enemy that pays no attention to borders, the battle pointed to possible trouble for both the United States and Pakistan when Washington begins withdrawing troops later this year.
Pakistan is already complaining that NATO does not have enough troops along the Afghan side of the border.
In the past, NATO and Pakistani forces staged coordinated “hammer and anvil’’ operations on the border, but relations between Washington and Islamabad hit a particularly rough patch, especially since the unilateral US raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Even so, NATO officials say that border cooperation has not suffered.
Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan is home to thousands of local and international Qaeda and Taliban militants. In broad alliance, they focus attacks on international and Afghan forces and the Pakistani state or spend time plotting and training for international terrorist attacks.
Under heavy US pressure, Pakistan’s army has moved forcefully into parts of the mountainous and sparsely populated region over the last four years. It previously had little or no presence, but the militants have proved resilient.
The clashes erupted in Upper Dir district, across the poorly defined and largely unpatrolled border from Afghanistan’s Kunar region. Mohammed said some 200 militants crossed the border Wednesday and attacked a checkpoint manned by police and paramilitary troops, triggering the battles.
He said many of the attackers fled back to Afghanistan as the fighting wound down later yesterday, and that the situation was now under control. Funerals were being arranged.
It was not possible to independently verify his account of the fighting.
On Wednesday, army commanders in Mohmand region, which also lies opposite Kunar, said their operation to clear the region of militants was being hampered because the insurgents were getting shelter on the other side of the border. In particular, they said insurgents have free movement in a 6-mile-wide rugged swath between the River Kunar and the frontier.
“They are just sitting there, the flow of reinforcements are coming from there,’’ said Major Nadir Zaeb, the head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps. “It would be ideal if there were strong blocks on the border.’’
NATO spokeswoman Colette Murphy acknowledged that “the terrain in that area provides natural havens, but these are by no means safe havens.’’
“As long as they are inside Afghanistan’s borders, we will target them,’’ she said.
While there is little doubt that militants cross into Pakistan, the commanders’ complaints carry a political edge to them. Pakistan has been accused for years of failing to crack down on, or even of supporting, powerful militant factions. They attack Western troops inside Afghanistan but do not directly threaten Islamabad.
Those accusations have grown louder as the Afghan war has dragged on.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Pakistan will have to sort out its damaged relationship with the United States before the Pentagon can restore “very significant’’ cuts in its military training there.
Mullen said Islamabad remains committed to working with the United States, but it will take time to rebuild ties after the bin Laden raid.
He said it is critical to go after militants in North Waziristan so the Afghan war can succeed, but Pakistan has made no specific pledge to do that in the near future.