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Deadly Airstrike Strains U.S.-Pakistan Relations

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The alliance between the United States and Pakistan in the war on terror has never been easy. Now it's even more difficult. Pakistan's lodged a strong protest over a U.S. air strike yesterday which it says killed 11 of its soldiers at a border post.

Those men died in Pakistan's tribal belt along the frontier with Afghanistan, where the U.S. and its allies are fighting the Taliban. NPR's Phillip Reeves has this report.

(Soundbite of prayers)

PHILLIP REEVES: Once again they're in mourning along Pakistan's frontier. The Pakistani army says the 11 dead soldiers were paramilitaries from its frontier core. It called the U.S. air strike cowardly and unprovoked. That's the strongest language used against the United States by the Pakistani military since it became America's ally in the war on terror.

Pentagon spokesman Jeff Murrell defended the U.S. forces.

Mr. JEFF MURRELL (Pentagon): Every indication we have at this point is that this was indeed a legitimate strike in defense of our forces after they came under attack.

REEVES: It isn't easy establishing what happened. The terrain's remote, the line dividing Afghan and Pakistani turf has never been clear. U.S. officials say the air strike was called after coalition forces a few hundred yards inside Afghanistan were fired on from a position near a Pakistani military checkpoint. The Pakistani army says the coalition troops were ambushed by militants on the Afghan side. However, the political fallout's clear enough.

Prime Minister YOUSUF RAZA GILANI (Pakistan): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani interrupted proceedings in parliament to make a statement condemning the air strike as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. Relations between Pakistan and the U.S. were already strained. Pakistan's newly elected government is trying to forge peace deals in the tribal belt to end militant violence.

The U.S. and its allies are worried such deals, which have been tried before, only allow the militants to regroup and mount more cross-border attacks. Britain's envoy to Islamabad, Robert Brinkley, yesterday expressed regret lives were lost, but he also underscored Western concerns about the tribal belts used by al-Qaida and its allies to plot attacks elsewhere in the world.

Mr. ROBERT BRINKLEY (British Envoy): It's very important their space to do that plotting must be more and more reduced and finally eliminated.

Mr. TARIQ FATIMI (Former Pakistani Ambassador): The timing was particularly bad.

REEVES: That's Tariq Fatimi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington.

Mr. FATIMI: A weak civilian government in Pakistan that is still very much in the process of finding its feet and settling down does not need these kinds of incidents.

REEVES: That government, run by a fragile coalition, has plenty of other problems. The country's lawyers are heading en masse towards the capital, Islamabad, to demand that the government fulfill its promise restore judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf. Fatimi views the U.S. positively, but he believes the U.S. air strike will reinforce the feeling among Pakistanis that Musharraf gave far too much leeway to the U.S. in the war on terror and that Pakistan's new government must change this.

(Soundbite of banging)

REEVES: In the restaurants in Islamabad today, it wasn't hard to find people who feel this way. This is Feisel(ph), an accountant.

Mr. FEISEL (Accountant): We will try to force our government to actually stop supporting America in all their initiatives against the terrorists. And I would not like my government to support America at any cost now.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.