U.S., Pakistani forces exchange fire along the Afghan border

WASHINGTON — Pakistani forces Thursday fired at U.S. helicopters and traded shots with U.S. troops and Afghan police on the Afghan-Pakistan border in the latest blow to cooperation between Washington and Islamabad, U.S. officials said.

Neither side reported casualties in the incident, which occurred when the helicopters crossed into the Pakistani tribal agency of North Waziristan, the Pakistan army said.

In New York, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari said that Pakistani soldiers only fired "flares" to demarcate the mountainous border for the helicopter pilots.

"Sometimes the border in so mixed that they don't realize they have crossed the border," he told reporters as he sat down to talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice agreed that the border "is very, very unclear."

According to the U.S. military, Pakistani troops in a hillside border checkpoint fired at two U.S. OH-58 Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters providing cover for Afghan police and U.S. military trainers patrolling inside the Tanai district of Khost Province.

The Afghan police and U.S. soldiers "observed fire coming from the Pakistani checkpoint at the helicopters. Our guys then fired suppressive rounds into the ground down the hill from the checkpoint," said Adm. Gregory Smith, a spokesman for Tampa, Fla.-based U.S. Central Command.

The Pakistani soldiers "turned their fire down the hillside at the U.S.-Afghan patrol," said Smith.

The U.S.-Afghan patrol fired directly at the Pakistani checkpoint, and the shooting lasted about five minutes, he said.

Smith said officers with U.S.-led NATO forces contacted Pakistani counterparts to determine exactly what happened and work out ways to avoid future clashes.

"The good news here is that while there was some judgment error on the part of the Pakistani border post to fire at our helicopters, no one was hurt," said a senior U.S. defense official who asked not to be further identified so he could speak freely.

The Pakistani military gave a different version, saying in a statement that the helicopters "passed over our border post and were well inside Pakistan territory."

"Our own security forces fire anticipatory warning shots. On this, the helicopters returned fire and flew back," the statement said. "The issue is being resolved through existing coordination and communication channel between Pakistan Army and ISAF (NATO's International Security Assistance Force)."

President Bush recently authorized stepped-up cross-border U.S. missile strikes and at least one commando raid. U.S. commanders have long complained that Pakistan has failed to act decisively against extremist sanctuaries in the tribal area.

Pakistani civilian and military leaders, anxious to tamp down widespread popular outrage over the U.S. strikes and reports of civilian casualties, have been warning that their troops would use force to defend the border.

"Just as we will not let Pakistan's territory to be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbors, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends," Zardari said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

"Unilateral actions of great powers should not inflame the passions of allies," he said.

Many experts inside and outside the Bush administration are concerned that the growing frictions are crippling cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, supposed allies against terrorism.

"This is really bad. This is not the way allies act," said Seth Jones of the RAND Corp. "Both sides are clearly to blame, although to be honest, I don't know that the U.S. had too many other options."

In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said he discussed "the importance of promoting greater collaboration between the governments of the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan" with Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfa Spanta and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.

He said the issue would figure in talks that Bush is scheduled to hold on Friday at the White House with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai, the target in April of a failed assassination attempt blamed on a Pakistan-based insurgent network linked to a Pakistani intelligence service, has accused Pakistan of backing the Taliban, a charge denied by Islamabad.

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