Travel-weary officer overheard saying 'I hope this is our last flight'

WASHINGTON — A delegation of Pakistani officers refused to attend a defense conference in the United States this week in protest over their treatment at a Washington airport, officials said Wednesday.

The nine Pakistanis were about to fly to Tampa, Florida from Dulles International Airport for a three-day conference at US Central Command when they were pulled off the plane and questioned for more than two hours.

The crew of the United Airlines flight became concerned over a remark by one of the officers, a Pakistani official said.

"One of the crew members or one of the passengers overheard one of the officers saying to another officer...'I hope this is going to be our last flight,'" the official said.

The officer was merely complaining about the lengthy journey that had started from Pakistan but the crew viewed it as "something scary or related to terrorism," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

The Pakistanis showed security authorities their passports, their letters of invitation to the conference at Central Command and details of their escort with the US military, the official said.

By the time they were released, they had missed their flight.

"As a matter of protest at this incident, they cancelled the meeting and turned back to Pakistan," he said.

US officials often speak about the need to overcome a "trust deficit" with Pakistan -- a crucial partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda and its associates -- but Tuesday's incident appeared to complicate that effort.

A Pentagon spokesman expressed regret over the episode.

"It's certainly an unfortunate incident, any time things of this nature happen," Colonel Dave Lapan told reporters.

But he said it was up to the commercial airline how it dealt with security concerns.

"It's completely within the purview of airlines to handle security situations as they fit," he said.

The delegation had planned to attend an annual US-Pakistan conference at Central Command, officers said.

It was not the first time an official Pakistani delegation had objected to how it was treated in a visit to the United States. A parliamentary delegation about a year ago had a similar experience, the Pakistani official said.

"Certainly we're concerned about what happened and they should not have been treated like this. But I hope that relations will not be harmed by this," he said.

The Pentagon and Central Command had apologized over the incident, he added.