BRUSSELS — NATO moved Sunday to contain the damage from the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers, seeking to soothe Islamabad’s rage against the US and its military allies in Afghanistan over the airstrike.
Alliance Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stopped short of issuing a full apology to Pakistan premier Yousuf Raza Gilani for the “tragic, unintended” killings, which he deemed “regrettable”.
Against a backdrop of longstanding pressure on Pakistan to step up the fight against “terrorists” hiding out in the border region with Afghanistan, Rasmussen’s statement followed a flurry of overnight diplomacy.
He had initially left the issue Saturday in the hands of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting the US-led war and which includes non-NATO allies, letting the commander on the ground deal with the immediate fallout.
But as Pakistan’s anger mounted in the hours following the early-morning Saturday strike and Islamabad ordered a full-scale review of its frosty alliance with Washington and the military bloc, NATO headquarters decided to react.
An official said allies had sought to ascertain “exactly what was meant” by Pakistan’s public position and to prevent lasting damage from the suspension of supply lines for Afghanistan and an order for US troops to leave a secretive air base in Pakistan.
Pakistan represents a vital life-line for 130,000 foreign troops, mostly American, fighting in landlocked Afghanistan, and Rasmussen joined US efforts in a scramble to salvage cooperation.
“I have written to the Prime Minister of Pakistan to make it clear that the deaths of Pakistani personnel are as unacceptable and deplorable as the deaths of Afghan and international personnel,” Rasmussen said in a statement, deeming the strike “a tragic unintended incident.”
Pakistan says two border posts were fired upon “unprovoked” in the early hours of Saturday in Pakistan’s tribal Mohmand district, and on Sunday conveyed its “rage” to the United States.
An ISAF investigation into the incident is likely to ask whether Afghan and American troops on the Afghan side of the border were fired upon first — whether by insurgents or Pakistani military.
“I fully support the ISAF investigation which is currently underway,” Rasmussen said of the International Security Assistance Force fighting the war and which includes non-NATO allies.
“We will determine what happened, and draw the right lessons,” Rasmussen added.
The US-led NATO force in Afghanistan has admitted it is “highly likely” that the force’s aircraft caused the deaths before dawn on Saturday.
As the first funerals took place Sunday for the dead Pakistani soldiers, NATO was trying to reopen the Pakistani-Afghan border after Islamabad on Saturday held up convoys at two key crossings.
It is not the first time Pakistan shut the main land route in, after a 10-day closure in September 2010 following the deaths of three troops then.
The border was reopened after the United States formally apologised.
Pakistan, battling its own Taliban insurgency in the northwest, is dependent on billions of dollars in US aid.
Relations between Pakistan and the United States have been in crisis since American troops killed Osama bin Laden in May this year near the capital without prior warning and after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January.