ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani troops opened fire Monday on U.S. forces who were trying to enter the country's lawless tribal area, local officials said, marking a dangerous further deterioration in relations between the allies in the war on terrorism.
Both armies — and the Pentagon — denied that the reported incident had occurred, but local security officials and tribesmen in South Waziristan told McClatchy that two American helicopters had entered Pakistani airspace in the early hours and were forced to retreat when they came under fire.
Earlier this month, U.S. choppers flew in commandos who assaulted a compound that housed suspected militants, in the first documented American ground raid into the tribal territory, and it's possible that the latest reported operation followed the same pattern. Up to 20 people, including civilians, died in the earlier attack, enraging the Pakistani army and public.
One security official in South Waziristan, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to talk to the press, said: "American helicopters came and there was a space (border) violation. Pakistani scouts (paramilitary troops) fired artillery as a warning and they left. The helicopters did not land."
Never miss a local story.
Other reports said that troops had directed gunfire at the helicopters, which were just inside Pakistani territory. The Reuters news agency quoted an official saying that the fire came from Pakistani soldiers based at a border checkpoint known as BP-27.
The Pakistani army acknowledged that a skirmish may have taken place but maintained that its soldiers weren't involved.
"The villagers had some firing incident, according to the reports I've received," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistani army spokesman. "But who fired at who, I cannot confirm."
The American military said there hadn't been any operation.
"We did not have any forces or helicopters on or near the border," said Mark Swart, a spokesman for the American military at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. "I don't know where the reports are coming from."
The tribal area, which runs along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, serves as a haven for Taliban and al Qaida militants who are fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The New York Times, in a report last week that the administration didn't deny, said President Bush had signed a secret order approving the deployment of U.S. forces in Pakistan. However, Bush appears to have acted without considering the impact on Pakistani domestic politics. Last week, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced plans to draft a new strategy for Afghanistan and the Pakistan border area. Pentagon officials told McClatchy they're currently operating without a strategic plan.
Analysts said that the new operations risked a confrontation between the Pakistani and American armies and threatened to overwhelm the new democratic government in Islamabad, which is already under enormous strain from the Islamist insurgency. As well as the unprecedented ground assault, there have been seven U.S. missile strikes in the tribal area over the last month, about the same number as all of last year. This represents an enormous step-up in American intervention in Pakistan and is reported to have killed dozens of civilians as well as suspected extremists.
"This kind of situation cannot go on, because any government in Pakistan will get destabilized," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a security analyst based in the eastern city of Lahore. "This is what the Americans don't realize, that if there is an instability in Pakistan, their war on terror cannot be pursued. If everybody turns against America, then no (Pakistani) government will be in a position to support the war on terror."
"The new strategy must not load the dice against Pakistan further just for the sake of some putative gains in the electoral battle of the United States," said a commentary Monday in Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper by Tanvir Ahmad Khan, the former top bureaucrat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "American policy planners are thinking of that gain and not the future of Afghanistan or Pakistan. This has to change in the long-term interest of both Pakistan and the United States."
Pentagon officials said, however, that they no longer could wait for Pakistani officials to deal with groups along the border that threatened U.S. troops. Quietly, Defense Department officials dismiss the Pakistani government's response as aimed at domestic public opinion.
The U.S. interventions appear to have provoked another ominous development over the weekend. Moderate tribal chiefs in North Waziristan, the part of Pakistan's tribal area that the most recent U.S. missile struck, vowed to go fight American forces in Afghanistan, alongside the Taliban, if the U.S. doesn't halt cross-border attacks into Pakistan.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY