U.S says it can chase suspects into Pakistan

But official in Islamabad rejects that assertion

January 04, 2003|By Chris Kraul | Chris Kraul,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KABUL, Afghanistan - The U.S. military said yesterday that it had a right to chase suspected terrorists operating in unsettled southeastern Afghan border areas into Pakistani territory, a position that a high Pakistani Interior Ministry official later rejected.

The dispute comes after a still-murky border clash Sunday when a man dressed in the uniform of a Pakistani border scout fired on a U.S. military patrol near Shkin, wounding one GI. Americans then called in an airstrike that killed two Pakistanis.

Why the man fired on the U.S. unit is unexplained. But the incident and claims by some hard-liners that the U.S. bomb landed in Pakistan has fanned anti-American sentiment, helping draw thousands into the streets for anti-U.S rallies in several Pakistani cities yesterday.

The U.S. military said a Marine Harrier jet dropped a 500-pound bomb Sunday in an area commonly recognized as Afghan territory though situated 300 yards or more behind a Pakistani border station.

Pakistan has been a valued U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, arresting 400 suspects and posting 70,000 troops along the porous Afghan border. On Wednesday, Pakistani officials played down the bombing incident and declined to blame U.S. military authorities for the deaths.

But the U.S. assertion that it had a right to make incursions into Pakistan to capture terrorists seemed to catch authorities off guard yesterday.

At a regular briefing at the U.S. military base at Bagram north of here, spokesman Maj. Stephen Clutter said yesterday that the U.S. right to pursue al-Qaida and Taliban suspects across the Afghan border is a "long-standing policy" agreed to by Pakistan. To his knowledge, the United States has never exercised the right, he said.

"We are not just going to tiptoe and stop right when we get to the border," Clutter said, referring to possible pursuits of suspected Taliban and al-Qaida members who frequently harass U.S. forces arrayed in bases along the border area. "We do reserve the right to pursue them, and Pakistan is aware of that. There's no change there."

Interviewed in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, a high Interior Ministry official said that "there is nothing in the understanding between the U.S. and Pakistan that will allow the U.S. to pursue criminals in Pakistani territory."

"All operations in Pakistani territory against all criminals are being carried out, and will be carried out, by Pakistani law enforcement agencies," said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. As of late yesterday, the Pakistani government had not issued a formal response to the U.S. military spokesman's comments.

The border scout who allegedly fired on the U.S. soldiers Sunday is in custody and is being questioned by Pakistani authorities, the official said. Sgt. Kelly Tyler, another U.S. military spokeswoman, said the Pakistanis are handling the investigation of the incident.

Pakistanis also took to the streets yesterday to protest a possible U.S. war on Iraq. Religious anti-U.S. factions made big gains in Pakistani elections in October, partly boosted by voters protesting the Pakistani government's support of the U.S.-led coalition's war on the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Officials estimated that a total of perhaps 12,000 protesters showed up in several cities, with the largest demonstration in Peshawar, where demonstrators chanted, "Long live Saddam Hussein."

Chris Kraul writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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