Pakistan mulls air defenses at border

In this Nov. 26, 2011 photo released by Inter Services Public Relations department, a Pakistan army post reportedly targeted by NATO helicopters and resulting in the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers is seen in the Pakistani tribal area of Mohmand, along the Afghanistan border. AP/ISPRD

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan may deploy air defense weapons to the Afghan border to prevent future NATO air strikes such as the ones last month that the Pakistani military claims were pre-planned and that killed 24 of the country's soldiers, a senior lawmaker said Friday.

U.S. officials have denied last month's attack was deliberate and have worked to repair the damage it caused to the country's already strained relationship with Pakistan. Finding a way to mend ties is important because Pakistan is seen as critical to the Afghan war.

The possibility of Pakistan deploying air defense weapons to the border shows just how much distrust exists between the country and U.S.-led forces fighting in Afghanistan, even though Islamabad has received billions of dollars in American aid over the last decade.

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The NATO air strikes against two army posts on the Afghan border before dawn on Nov. 26 added to anger that Pakistan still felt over the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May. Pakistani officials were outraged they were not told beforehand about the operation against the al Qaeda chief, which also originated in Afghanistan, and fumed over the violation of the country's sovereignty — as they have done with the NATO attacks.

Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, Pakistan's head of military operations, told the Cabinet and the Senate's defense committee Thursday that officials believe the air strikes were planned and speculated they may have been carried out by the CIA, according to the head of the defense committee, Javed Ashraf Qazi, who attended the briefing.

The CIA is widely despised in Pakistan because of frequent drone strikes targeting militants in Pakistan's tribal region.

Nadeem said the military was considering deploying air defense weapons to the Afghan border to prevent future attacks, according to Qazi.

A report in Pakistan's leading English-language newspaper, Dawn, erroneously said the military has already decided to deploy the weapons.

"You cannot deploy these systems on each and every outpost. Sometimes these posts are attacked by militants, and you may lose these weapons," said Qazi, a retired army general and former head of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Despite these risks, the defense committee was convinced the military should deploy air defense weapons to the border, said Qazi.

Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has instructed troops on the ground that they are allowed to strike back against any future incursions without prior approval of top commanders, Qazi quoted Nadeem as saying.

NATO attacks have killed Pakistani troops at least three different times along the porous and poorly defined border since 2008, but the Nov. 26 incident in the Mohmand tribal area was by far the most deadly.

U.S. officials have said the strike occurred when a joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested air support after coming under fire. The U.S. checked with the Pakistan military to see if friendly troops were in the area and were told there were not, they said.

Pakistan has said the Americans gave the wrong coordinates — an allegation denied by U.S. defense officials. Pakistani officials have also said the attack continued even after authorities contacted one of the centers meant to coordinate military activity between forces on either side of the border.

Pakistan retaliated immediately by closing its Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies, demanding the U.S. vacate an air base used by American drones and boycotting an international conference held earlier this week in Bonn, Germany, aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan.

Since the border closure, hundreds of NATO trucks have been stranded at the poorly guarded border terminals. On Thursday, assailants torched more than 20 tankers. There were no casualties in the attack.

The crisis has come as Pakistan continues to battle militant and other forms of violence across the country.

A vehicle carrying paramilitary soldiers in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi hit a roadside bomb Friday, killing three troops and wounding four others, said police official Akram Naeem.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Islamist militants, including the Pakistani Taliban and their allies, have carried out many such bombings throughout the country. Karachi has also experienced frequent violence caused by power struggles between gangs allegedly connected to the city's main political parties.

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