The U.S. military said Friday that it had a right to chase suspected terrorists operating in unsettled southeastern Afghan border areas as they flee into Pakistani territory, a position that a senior Pakistani official later rejected.
The dispute comes after a still murky border clash Sunday in which a Pakistani border scout fired on a U.S. military patrol near Shkin in Afghanistan, wounding one soldier. U.S. forces then called in an airstrike, killing two Pakistanis.
No explanation has been given as to why the man fired on the U.S. unit.
The incident and claims by some Pakistani hard-liners that the U.S. bomb landed in Pakistan have fanned anti-American sentiment. Thousands protested in several Pakistani cities Friday.
The U.S. military said a warplane dropped a 500-pound bomb Sunday in an area commonly recognized as Afghan territory though situated at least 300 yards behind a Pakistani border station.
Pakistan has been a valued U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, arresting 400 suspects and posting 70,000 troops along its porous border with Afghanistan. On Wednesday, officials downplayed the bombing incident and declined to blame U.S. military authorities for the deaths.
But the assertion by the United States that it has a right to make incursions into Pakistan to nab suspected terrorists seemed to catch authorities off guard Friday.
At the American military headquarters at Bagram air base north of Kabul, the Afghan capital, spokesman Maj. Stephen Clutter said Friday that the U.S. right to pursue fighters from the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the former Taliban regime across the Afghan border is a "long-standing policy" agreed to by Pakistan.
Clutter said that to his knowledge, the United States had never exercised the right.
"We are not just going to tiptoe and stop right when we get to the border," he said. "We do reserve the right to pursue them, and Pakistan is aware of that. There's no change there."
A senior Interior Ministry official said in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, that "there is nothing in the understanding between the U.S. and Pakistan that will allow the U.S. to pursue criminals in Pakistani territory."
"All operations in Pakistani territory against all criminals are being carried out and will be carried out by Pakistani law enforcement agencies," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.In March, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States would not pursue terrorists across the border because Pakistan at the time was doing a good job of keeping them out of the country.
The border scout who fired on the American soldiers Sunday is in custody and is being questioned, Pakistani authorities said.
Master Sgt. Kelly Tyler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military, said the investigation of the incident was being handled by the Pakistanis.
The shooting occurred when American soldiers were disposing of rockets and other munitions near a Special Forces base in Shkin, which has come under fire from militants who occasionally have set time-delayed rockets and then fled into Pakistan.
The border scout approached the U.S. unit and was ordered to step back, at which point the Pakistani fired, injuring one soldier.
The gunman retreated into an abandoned building, where he and several others continued firing on the Americans. At that point, the soldiers called for the airstrike.
Meanwhile, Pakistanis also hit the streets Friday to protest a possible U.S. war on Iraq. Officials estimated that a total of 12,000 protesters showed up in several cities, with the largest demonstration in Peshawar. Protesters in the western city chanted, "Long live Saddam Hussein!" referring to the Iraqi leader.
Times special correspondent Talat Hussein in Islamabad contributed to this report.