Islamabad - NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers lasted almost two hours and continued even after Pakistani commanders had pleaded with coalition forces to stop, the army claimed Monday in charges that could further inflame anger in Pakistan.

NATO has described the incident as "tragic and unintended" and has promised a full investigation.


Unnamed Afghan officials told the Associated Press that Afghan commandos and U.S. special forces were conducting a mission on the Afghan side of the border and received incoming fire from the direction of the Pakistani posts. They responded with airstrikes.

Ties between Pakistan and the United States were already deteriorating before the deadly attack and have sunk to new lows since, delivering a major setback to American hopes of enlisting Islamabad's help in negotiating an end to the 10-year-old Afghan war.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the Pakistani troops at two border posts were the victims of an unprovoked aggression. He said the attack lasted almost two hours and that commanders had contacted NATO counterparts while it was going on, asking "they get this fire to cease, but somehow it continued."

The Pakistan army has previously said its soldiers retaliated "with all weapons available" to the attack.

The poorly defined, mountainous border has been a constant source of tension between Pakistan and the United States. NATO officials have complained that insurgents fire from across the frontier, often from positions close to Pakistani soldiers who have been accused of tolerating or supporting the militants. NATO and Afghan forces are not allowed to cross over into Pakistan in pursuit of militants.

Saturday's strikes have added to popular anger in Pakistan against the U.S.-led coalition presence in Afghanistan. Many in the army, parliament, general population and media already believed that the U.S. and NATO are hostile to Pakistan and that the Afghan Taliban are not the enemy.

By claiming it was the victim of unprovoked aggression, the Pakistan army is strengthening this narrative.

"The Pakistan military is clearly very angry at the turn of events and the army's top leadership is under tremendous pressure from middle-ranking offices and junior officers to react," Hasan Abbas of the U.S. National Defense University's College of International Security Affairs told Reuters.
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© Shakil Adil/AP
Pakistani lawyers rally to condemn NATO strikes on Pakistani troops, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Monday, Nov 28. Placard on right reads " Go ahead Pakistan army we are with you." AP Photo/Shakil Adil

Adding a new element to tensions, Pakistan's ally China said it was "deeply shocked" by the incident and expressed "strong concern for the victims and profound condolences for Pakistan."

"China believes that Pakistan's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected and the incident should be thoroughly investigated and be handled properly," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement on the ministry's website.

While the United States is widely disliked in Pakistan, the army has accepted billions in American aid over the last 10 years in return for its cooperation in fighting al-Qaida. It has been accused of fomenting anti-American sentiment in the country to extract better terms in what is essentially a transactional and deeply troubled relationship with Washington.

Saturday's deadly incident also serves to shift attention away from the dominant perception of the Pakistani army in the West over the last five years - that of an unreliable ally that supports militancy. That image was cemented after al-Qaida's chief Osama bin Laden was found to have been hiding in an army town close to the Pakistani capital when he was killed.

For Pakistan's weak and much criticized elected government, Saturday's airstrikes provide a rare opportunity to unite the country and a momentary relief from attack by rivals eyeing elections in 2013 or sooner.

Hours after the attack on Saturday, Pakistan closed its western border to trucks delivering supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan, demanded that the U.S. abandon an air base inside Pakistan used to operate drone strikes, and said it will review its cooperation with the U.S. and NATO.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.