ISLAMABAD ? U.S. officials gave Pakistan soldiers the wrong location when asking for clearance to attack militants along the border last weekend, Pakistani military officials said Friday. The strike resulted in the deaths of 24 soldiers and a major crisis in relations between Washington and Islamabad.
The claim was the latest in a series by mostly anonymous officials in both countries trying to explain what happened before and during last week's bombing of two Pakistani border checkpoints by U.S. aircraft.
NATO and America have expressed regret for the loss of lives, but have rejected Pakistani allegations it was a deliberate act of aggression.
The incident has pushed already strained ties between Washington and Islamabad close to rupture, complicating American hopes of securing Pakistan's help in negotiating an end to the Afghan war. In retaliation for the raid, Islamabad has already closed its western border to NATO supplies traveling into landlocked Afghanistan.
Thousands of Islamic extremists and other demonstrators took to the streets across the country after Friday prayers to protest the Nov. 26 strike. Some called on the army to attack the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. The chants were a worrying sign for the West because it indicates that anger over the incident is uniting hard-liners and the military.
Pakistan's army, still smarting from the criticism it received after the unilateral U.S. chopper-borne raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, has ordered border troops to take a more aggressive posture against intruders, said Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.
"Instructions have been issued to all units of the Pakistan armed forces to respond, with full force, to any act of aggression and infringement of Pakistan's territorial frontiers," he said.
U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that Saturday's incident occurred when a joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small arms fire by Taliban militants.
Before responding, the patrol first checked with the Pakistani army, which reported it had no troops in the area, they said.
U.S. officials say Pakistani troops had "given the go-ahead" for the strikes, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday. This account would suggest that the Pakistanis were at least partly to blame for the deadly error.
A Pakistani military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information confirmed that the Americans had provided his side with a location for the planned strike.
However, he said, the information arrived late, Pakistan never cleared the strike, and the coordinates provided were incorrect.
"Wrong information about (the) area of operation was provided to Pakistani officials a few minutes before the strike," he said. "Without getting clearance from Pakistan side, the post had already been engaged by U.S. helicopters and fighter jets."
The prime minister said that after the attack, military authorities contacted the border coordination center, where the two sides liaise over operations close to the frontier. The strikes continued, however, and "that relief and reinforcements sent from the nearby Pakistani posts also came under attack," he said.
U.S. officials at the border coordination center later "apologized privately to Pakistani officials for initially providing wrong information and the subsequent engagement of the post without prior information," he said.
The U.S. and NATO have both launched investigations. Washington has not formally apologized, saying it would not be appropriate before an investigation into the incident is complete. The mountainous, poorly defined border has been a regular flashpoint between U.S. and Pakistan, with Washington accusing Pakistani troops of tolerating or supporting militants who operate there and attack inside Afghanistan.
Anti-American demonstrations took place around Pakistan on Friday, including a 2,000-strong rally in the country's commercial hub of Karachi by the Sunni extremist Sipah-e-Sahaba group. The group is banned because of its ties to al-Qaida, but that ban is largely ignored.
Aurangezeb Farooqi, a leader of the group, asked the protesters whether they were ready to join the army to fight Americans. Many raised their fists in response and shouted "God is great!" Some held up placards saying: "There is only one treatment for America: jihad, jihad," meaning holy war.
Washington believes that Islamabad's cooperation is vital to negotiate a truce with Afghan insurgent leaders based on Pakistani soil, so that the U.S. can withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
But Islamabad has its own interests, chiefly in ensuring that whatever regime remains in Kabul after U.S. forces withdraw is friendly to Pakistan, and hostile to India, its long-term regional foe. Consequently, Pakistan appears to be in no rush to take political risks helping the United States.
Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Pakistan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.