Afghan NATO force hits targets inside Pakistan

Jonathon Burch, Reuters North American News Service

July 16, 2008 10:41 EST

KABUL, July 16 (Reuters) – NATO forces in Afghanistan hit targets inside Pakistan with artillery and attack helicopters after coming under rocket fire from across the border, the alliance said on Wednesday.

Tension is high along the border with a sharp rise in attacks in eastern Afghanistan coming from inside Pakistan that Afghan and NATO officials blame on de-facto ceasefires between the Pakistani military and militants in its lawless tribal belt.

Troops from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) “received multiple rocket attacks from militants inside Pakistan, July 15,” the alliance said in a statement.

“The troops identified a (compound) as the point of origin of the attacks and responded in self-defence with a combination of fire from attack helicopters and artillery into Pakistan.”

Nine Afghan soldiers were wounded by the rocket attacks and ISAF responded immediately, an ISAF spokesman said. ISAF and the Pakistani army “coordinated their operation closely from the outset. The Pakistani military agreed to assist and search the area if the border firing continued,” the statement said.

Despite cooperation and open lines of communication between army commanders on both sides of the border, Afghan leaders have blamed Pakistani agents for a string of attacks.

These have included a suicide bomb on the Kabul Indian Embassy last week that killed 58 people and an April assassination bid on President Hamid Karzai.

Pakistan rejects the accusations and says the Afghan government is trying to deflect criticism of its own failure to stem the rising tide of Taliban violence.

NO GROUND INCURSION

The U.S. military, which provides the vast majority of troops in eastern Afghanistan, says attacks are up by 40 percent in the area over the last year, partly because of increased penetration of their soldiers into the mountainous region.

Another factor is the ceasefires in Pakistan which help secure the militants’ rear.

But while cross-border firing has gone up from both sides, NATO denied it had any intention of mounting any incursion onto Pakistani soil.

“There is not, nor is there going to be, an incursion of NATO troops into Pakistan. There is no planning for, no mandate for, an incursion of NATO troops into Pakistan,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai told a news briefing in Brussels.

But, he said, NATO troops “have the right to fire back in self-defence into Pakistan.”

Western forces in Afghanistan are coming under increased pressure as the traditional summer fighting season gets into full swing with security analysts predicting July could be the worst month of violence yet since the Taliban’s fall in 2001.

Already more U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in May and June than in Iraq and there are less than a quarter the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have seized the initiative and the headlines in recent weeks with a series of high profile attacks.

U.S. troops pulled out of a remote outpost in northeastern Afghanistan, three days after Taliban militants briefly breached the defences and killed nine U.S. soldiers, the biggest single loss of life for American forces in Afghanistan since 2005.

Foreign troops have also come under pressure in Afghanistan from a series of charges that their aircraft killed civilians.

Four women, four girls and an eight-year-old boy were killed in airstrikes in the western province of Farah on Tuesday, local officials said. (Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Charles Dick)

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