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U.S. acknowledges mistakes, doesn’t take blame in Pakistan strike

A Pentagon investigation of an airstrike last month that killed 24 Pakistani troops found that the U.S. failed to verify the location of Pakistani units before ordering the attack, but also blamed Pakistani soldiers for starting the fighting.

The findings released Thursday are the first public acknowledgment by the United States that its mistakes contributed to the deaths, a position aggressively asserted by Pakistan. By also faulting Pakistan the Pentagon report is likely to prolong the tense standoff between the two nations.

Pakistan has insisted that its soldiers were fired on without provocation early Nov. 26 and in response has barred NATO from using its territory to ship supplies into Afghanistan since the incident and kicked CIA personnel out of an airfield that they used for operations against militants.

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The investigation, by Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, found that “inadequate coordination by U.S. and Pakistani military officers,” including “our reliance on incorrect mapping information,” resulted “in a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani military units,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Despite the U.S. confusion over the location of Pakistani military, Clark concluded that U.S. troops, “given what information they had at the time, acted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon” from the Pakistani side of the border.

The Pentagon expressed its “deepest regret” and “sincere condolences” for the accidental killings, but it once again stopped short of apologizing, as demanded by several Pakistani officials.

It remains unclear why Pakistani forces would have opened fire on the U.S. special operations team, which was conducting a mission against militants in a remote area near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Clark dismissed claims by some Pakistani officers that the U.S. attack must have been an intentional strike on their troops. He found that “there was no intentional effort to target persons or places known to be part of the Pakistani military, or to deliberately provide inaccurate information to Pakistani officials,” the Pentagon statement said.

Clark, in a news conference, said the incident involved a 120-man U.S. special operations unit that was making its way up steep terrain to a village when it started receiving heavy machine gun fire and mortar rounds from a ridgeline in Pakistan. The unit’s commander radioed to his headquarters and asked whether any Pakistani military were known to be in the area. The commander called for a “show of force,” which involved an F-15 fighter swooping down over the area from where the shots were coming, in hope of intimidating whoever was firing.

There was confusion about whether any Pakistani troops were in the area, Clark said. When the firing from the ridgeline continued, the officer called for an AC-130, a heavily armed ground attack plane, to open fire on crude bunkers on the ridgeline that was the source of the gunfire. There was a fierce exchange of fire and more confusion about where forces were.

Clark said the episode stemmed from long-running mistrust between the two sides. Pakistan withheld information about the location of its border posts and the U.S. did not divulge specific details about its operations for fear the information would be shared with insurgents.

“Our focus now is to learn from these mistakes and take whatever corrective measures are required to ensure an incident like this is not repeated,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “More critically, we must work to improve the level of trust between our two countries.”

In retaliation for the airstrikes, Pakistan has threatened to set up air defense systems at the Afghan border that could shoot down U.S. military aircraft crossing into Pakistani territory, and has demanded a new set of ground rules governing cooperation between the two countries.

Included in those demands, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said this week, is a cessation of the CIA’s drone missile campaign in Pakistan’s volatile tribal areas, which Afghan Taliban insurgents use as sanctuary from which to launch attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan. Washington has relied heavily on the drone missile campaign to eliminate senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and commanders.

Sen. Javed Ashraf Qazi, head of the Pakistani Senate defense committee and former chief of the country’s premier spy agency, said the U.S. report probably will worsen the deeply troubled relationship between Washington and Islamabad, adding that it is likely to be seen by most Pakistanis as “a coverup.”

“This inquiry will not be the basis for any improvement in relations,” Qazi said. “If it had been an honest admission that ‘Someone has made a mistake and we apologize,’ then we probably could have moved beyond that point. But to say the other side fired first … this is a coverup that will only make it worse.”

The U.S. military’s findings probably will reduce the chances that Islamabad will reopen North Atlantic Treaty Organization supply lines through Pakistan any time soon, Qazi said.

A senior Pakistani military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the military has been given the report but was still looking it over and was not prepared to make any statements.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and the American Embassy in Kabul declined to make a public statement on the findings of the investigation. The government of President Hamid Karzai, which has publicly sought to distance itself from the incident, also had no immediate comment on the reported findings.

david.cloud@latimes.com

laura.king@latimes.com

Cloud reported from Washington and King from Kabul. Times staff writer Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad contributed to this report.


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