In a major flare-up, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation helicopters on Saturday attacked a Pakistani military border post killing at least 28 soldiers, prompting Islamabad to launch strong protest with the United States and close its frontier for supplies to allied forces in Afghanistan.
Two officers -- a major and a captain -- were among those killed when the helicopters fired on the check post at Baizai area of Mohmand tribal region at 2 am local time, in one of the most deadliest NATO strikes in Pakistan which threatened to further strain the already tense Pakistan-United States ties.
Fifteen more personnel were wounded and the death toll could rise as some of the injured were in serious condition, several officials told the media. Pakistani TV reports said that the post had only 40 soldiers.
Pakistani authorities responded to the attack by stopping all container trucks and tankers carrying supplies for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani cut short a visit to his hometown of Multan and convened a meeting of the defence committee of the cabinet to discuss the incident. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Governor Masood Kausar, while talking to media in Islamabad, put the death toll at 26. Other
officials were quoted by the media as saying that 28 personnel were killed.
The government condemned the attack that is expected to create fresh tensions in US-Pakistan relations, which are already under severe strain following the May 2 American raid that killed Al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.
Gilani "strongly condemned the NATO/ International Security Assistance Force attack on the Pakistani post", said a brief statement issued by the foreign office.
"On his directions, the matter is being taken up by the foreign ministry, in the strongest terms, with NATO and the US," it said.
US Ambassador Cameron Munter expressed regret at the incident and offered assistance in probing it. In a statement issued by the US embassy, Munter said, "I regret the loss of life of any Pakistani servicemen, and pledge that the United States will work closely with Pakistan to investigate this incident."
The Pakistani military said in a statement that ISAF and NATO helicopters "carried out unprovoked and indiscriminate firing" on the Pakistani check post.
A spokesman for the NATO-led ISAF in Kabul said the coalition was aware of "an incident" near the border and was gathering information on it. Security forces blocked all entry points to Mohmand tribal agency after the incident and began checking all vehicles, TV news channels reported. Several crossings on the Afghanistan frontier, including Landikotal and Takhtbai, were closed and over 150 NATO supply vehicles sent back to Peshawar.
The Pakistani embassy in the US lodged a verbal protest over the attack. Deputy Chief of Mission Iffat Gardezi contacted the US State Department at midnight and described the incident as "unprovoked". Pakistan's Ambassador to the European Union Jalil Abbas Jilani lodged a similar protest with NATO.
Former premier Nawaz Sharif, the chief of the PML-N, condemned the incident and described it as an "act of terrorism" while Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan called on the government to pull out of the US-led war on terrorism.
The incident occurred just a day after Pakistan army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen John Allen, met in Islamabad and discussed the need for tighter measures to block the movement of militants across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Kayani and Allen "discussed measures concerning coordination, communication and procedures between Pakistan army, ISAF and Afghan army aimed at enhancing border control on both sides", an army statement said.
On Saturday's incident, Gen Allen said NATO will "thoroughly investigate" it. "This incident has my highest personal attention and my commitment to thoroughly investigate it to determine the facts," Allen said in a statement in Kabul.
In May, two Pakistani soldiers were injured in an exchange of fire with two NATO helicopters from Afghanistan that intruded into the volatile North Waziristan tribal region.
Pakistan had retaliated against yet another incursion by NATO helicopters in September last year, which killed two Pakistani soldiers, by shutting down the main supply route for NATO forces. The route was reopened after the US tendered an official\ apology for the incursion.