| A Pakistani officer tests communication equipment donated by the US in Peshawar. (AFP)
Kabul, Jan. 3 (Reuters): The US military said today it reserved the right to cross from Afghanistan into neighbouring Pakistan in pursuit of fugitive Taliban or al Qaida militants.
The military said this was a long-standing policy which had the express consent of the government of Pakistan, although it has never been acknowleged publicly before and the government in Islamabad denied any formal agreement to allow US troops to cross into Pakistan.
“It has been a long-standing policy that if we are pursuing enemy forces, we are not just going to tiptoe and stop right when we get to the border,” said US military spokesman Major Stephen Clutter at Bagram air base.
“We do reserve the right to go after them and pursue them and that is something Pakistan is aware of.”
He added that to his knowledge US forces had never excercised that right, and that the closest they came was an incident on December 29 which culminated in a US warplane bombing a disputed border location.
The question of US troops operating inside Pakistan is a sensitive one for the government in Islamabad, particularly after hardline Islamic groups registered large electoral gains in October on the back of their opposition to Pakistan’s support for US military action in the region.
In an e-mail sent to Reuters today in response to a question, the US military said it had the “express consent of the Pakistani government” to pursue attackers who escaped capture in Afghanistan and fled across the border into Pakistan.
But Pakistan’s information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad told Reuters there was no blanket acceptance of such action.
“There are 10 or 12 people from the FBI searching (for suspects in Pakistan),” he said. “But for the uniformed army to enter our area for any action, that is not allowed. Without our permission that is not allowed.”
Pakistan has been an important ally of the US in its war on terror, and says it has up to 70,000 troops on its western border to stop Taliban or al Qaida fugitives fleeing Afghanistan.
But US servicemen operating in eastern Afghanistan told Reuters last year of their frustration with the way fugitives have often been able to evade capture by slipping across the border into Pakistan.
Signs of stress
Signs of strain in relations between the allies emerged this week after a gunbattle between US forces and a Pakistani border guard which left one American soldier wounded and prompted the US military to drop a bomb on an abandoned religious school in the border area.
Pakistani officials have said the bomb fell on Pakistani territory, but the US military insists it fell on Afghan territory near the border village of Shkin, albeit in an area administered by Pakistan.
“The area that is in question is recognised by Pakistan and Afghanistan and by the US as being in Afghanistan,” said US master Sergeant Kelly Tyler at Bagram, adding that Pakistani authorities had erected a fence 300 to 500 metres inside Afghan territory. “ There is a fence which is recognised by both countries as being inside Afghanistan,” she said. “The (bombed) compound in question sits between the two, between the fence and the legitimate border.”
Tyler said the battle began after a man dressed as a border guard approached US forces on the Afghan side of the fence and was told to cross back. As he retreated, he opened fire, wounding one US soldier.