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Afghanistan: Major Battle Reignites Pakistan Border Controversy

U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan earlier this year (file photo) (epa) January 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan saw its bloodiest battle in months overnight when NATO and Afghan troops spotted two groups of militants mainly within Pakistan and then tracked them as they crossed into Afghanistan's southeastern Paktika Province.

The NATO alliance says as many as 150 insurgents were killed during an overnight battle in southeastern Afghanistan after the insurgents crossed into the country from neighboring Pakistan.

Infiltration From Pakistan

NATO spokesman Major Dominic Whyte told RFE/RL that both NATO and Afghan government troops witnessed two groups of militants concentrating inside of Pakistan. He says the militants were tracked from the air and by ground forces as they crossed the border into the Bermel district of Afghanistan's Paktika Province.

"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over. So one assumes that they had commanders."

"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over. So one assumes that they had commanders.""Initial battle damage estimates indicate that as many as 150 insurgents were killed," he said. "The insurgents were observed congregating together in a large number in several trucks and they were armed and appeared to be gathering for a potential attack. The insurgents had been observed gathering in Pakistan itself and, indeed, had actually crossed the border [into Afghanistan.]"

Whyte says both NATO and Afghan troops were involved in what he described as a "series of running battles."

"The air strikes were conducted by fixed-wing aircraft who were brought onto target by ground forces," he said. "We also employed artillery to target the insurgents."

Islamabad Informed

The Afghan Defense Ministry issued a more conservative estimate on casualties, saying about 80 militants are thought to have been killed. Television footage from the battlefield showed the bodies of dozens of young men gathered together in one location.

NATO says Pakistani military liaison officers were kept fully informed during the operation. Whyte says it appears highly unlikely that any of the dead are civilians.

"The combination of using footage from the fixed-wing aircraft and the troops on the ground provides us with a fairly wide-ranging picture of what happened both before the operation and after it," he said. "There will, obviously, be follow-up operations of troops moving through those areas to provide a final confirmation of the initial estimates. The incident itself took place in a very remote and mountainous part of the country -- sparsely populated -- and our initial estimates include only casualties to the insurgents themselves."

Afghan anger about the infiltration of Taliban militants from Pakistan has damaged relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

Pakistan had repeatedly assured Afghanistan it would take action to stop cross-border infiltrations. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month leveled his strongest criticism at Pakistan over the issue -- openly accusing state elements in Pakistan of supporting the insurgents.

Proof For Pakistani Government?

Islamabad rejects allegations that Taliban leaders are using Pakistan as a base of operations. Pakistan has said in the past that such reports are "unsubstantiated" and that forces operating within Afghanistan should do more to curb the insurgents there.

The NATO spokesman says the latest battle strongly suggests that Taliban leaders are sheltering within Pakistan, though it is not absolute proof.

"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over," he said. "So one assumes that they had commanders. But at the moment, we have no idea whether there was any particular high-level [coordination or assistance]. The fact is that they came over the border, they were attacked, and a very high level of casualties [were] inflicted."

Some observers say NATO's aerial footage of the incident could lead to increased pressure on Pakistan to stop cross-border incursions.

U.S. Official To Pakistan

Richard Boucher, assistant U.S. secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is due to travel to Pakistan for talks that he expects to include Pakistan's plan to fence and lay mines on parts of the border to stop infiltration.

Kabul opposes the plan, saying fences and mines would unfairly divide ethnic Pashtun communities that straddle both sides of the border -- which is a British colonial-era demarcation that Kabul does not recognize.

Boucher said in Kabul today that questions remain about what more can be done. "The issue to us is control of the border and control of the border area," he said.

Boucher said Washington thinks Islamabad is genuinely committed to battling militancy within Pakistan.

But UN officials have said in recent days that Pakistan needs to take more action against leaders of the Taliban who are on Pakistani territory.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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