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US confirms raid inside Pakistan

A senior US military official has acknowledged that American forces conducted a raid inside Pakistan, in the first known foreign ground assault in the country against a suspected Taliban haven.

world Updated: Sep 04, 2008 09:07 IST

A senior US military official has acknowledged that American forces conducted a raid inside Pakistan, in the first known foreign ground assault in the country against a suspected Taliban haven.

The Pakistan government condemned an incursion that it said killed at least 15 people.

The American official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of cross-border operations, told The Associated Press that the raid occurred Wednesday on Pakistani soil about one 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from the Afghan border. The official didn't provide any other details.

The boldness of the thrust fed speculation about the intended target. But it was unclear whether any extremist leader was killed or captured in the operation, which occurred in one of the militant strongholds dotting a frontier region considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

In other signs of Pakistan's precarious stability three days before legislators elect a successor to Pervez Musharraf as president, snipers shot at the prime minister's limousine near Islamabad and government troops killed two dozen militants in another area of the restive northwest. Neither Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani nor his staff were in the vehicles.

Pakistani officials said they were lodging strong protests with the US government about Wednesday's raid in the South Waziristan area, a notorious hot bed of militant activity.

The Foreign Ministry called the strike "a gross violation of Pakistan's territory," saying it could "undermine the very basis of cooperation and may fuel the fire of hatred and violence that we are trying to extinguish."

US military and civilian officials declined to respond to Pakistan's complaints. But one official, a South Asia expert who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name, suggested the target of any raid like that reported Wednesday would have to be extremely important to risk an almost assured "big backlash" from Pakistan.

"You have to consider that something like this will be a more-or-less once-off opportunity for which we will have to pay a price in terms of Pakistani cooperation," the official said. American commanders have been complaining publicly that Pakistan puts too little pressure on militant groups that are blamed for mounting violence in Afghanistan, stirring speculation that US forces might lash out across the frontier.

Circumstances surrounding Wednesday's raid weren't clear, but US rules of engagement allow American troops to chase militants across the border into Pakistan's lawless tribal region when they are attacked. They may only go about six miles (10 kilometers) on the ground, under normal circumstances. US rules allow aircraft to go 10 miles (16 kilometers) into Pakistan air space. Pakistan's army spokesman, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, said the attack was the first incursion onto Pakistani soil by troops from the foreign forces that ousted Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attack on the US.

He said the attack would undermine Pakistan's efforts to isolate Islamic extremists and could threaten NATO's major supply lines, which snake from Pakistan's Indian Ocean port of Karachi through the tribal region into Afghanistan.

"We cannot afford a huge uprising at the level of tribe," Abbas said. "That would be completely counterproductive and doesn't help the cause of fighting terrorism in the area."

The Pakistani anger threatens to upset efforts by American commanders to draw Pakistan's military into the US strategy of dealing harshly with the militants.

Washington has accused rogue elements in Pakistan's main intelligence service of leaking sensitive information to militants. American officials say destroying militant sanctuaries in Pakistani tribal regions is key to defeating Taliban-led militants in Afghanistan whose insurgency has strengthened every year since the fundamentalist militia was ousted for harboring bin Laden.

Citing witness and intelligence reports, Abbas said troops flew in on at least one big CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter, blasted their way into several houses and gunned down men they found there. He said there was no evidence that any of those killed were insurgents or that the raiders abducted any militant leader, but he acknowledged Pakistan's military had no firsthand account. There were differing reports on how many people were killed.

The provincial governor claimed 20 civilians, including women and children, died. Army and intelligence officials, as well as residents, said 15 people were killed.

Habib Khan Wazir, an area resident, said he heard helicopters, then an exchange of gunfire.

"Later, I saw 15 bodies inside and outside two homes. They had been shot in the head," Wazir said by phone. He claimed all the dead were civilians.