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Pakistan accuses US-led troops in civilian deaths
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    DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — Helicopters ferried U.S.-led troops to a border village in a raid that left at least 15 people dead on Wednesday, including civilians, officials said. A Pakistani army spokesman said the attack was the first ever ground incursion by foreign forces on its territory and warned that it undermined efforts against terrorism.
    In other violence buffeting the country, snipers fired on the prime minister’s limousine and the army said it killed two dozen militants in a northwestern valley.
    American officials say Pakistan’s tribal regions along the Afghan border have turned into havens for al-Qaida and Taliban-linked militants involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
    The accusations — and suspected American missile strikes — have strained relations between the United States and Pakistan’s new civilian government in the days before it it elects a successor to ousted President Pervez Musharraf.
    Officials gave differing accounts of Wednesday’s pre-dawn raid in the South Waziristan region, part of the tribal belt where officials suspect Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri are hiding. It was unclear whether any militant leaders were killed or captured.
    Pakistan’s military said ground forces from NATO’s International Security Assistant Force in Afghanistan were ferried to the raid by two helicopters.
    Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said it was the first incursion into Pakistani territory by foreign forces, who previously limited their attacks on the tribal areas to airstrikes.
    He said the strike would undermine Pakistan’s efforts to wean away tribes from hardcore militants and could even threaten NATO’s major supply lines, which snake through the border region, and Pakistan’s ability to maintain frontier military posts.
    The Foreign Ministry called the raid ‘‘a grave provocation’’ and ‘‘a gross violation of Pakistan’s territory.’’ It said a strong diplomatic protest was being lodged over the ‘‘immense loss of civilian life.’’
    ‘‘Such actions are counterproductive and certainly do not help our joint efforts to fight terrorism,’’ it said. ‘‘On the contrary, they undermine the very basis of cooperation and may fuel the fire of hatred and violence that we are trying to extinguish.’’
    1st Lt. Nathan Perry, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said it had ‘‘no information to give’’ about the alleged operation, and the U.S. embassy in Islamabad declined to comment. NATO denied dispatching its forces.
    ‘‘There has been no NATO or ISAF involvement crossing the border into Pakistan,’’ NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.
    The governor of North West Frontier Province, the top administrator for the tribal belt, said up to 20 people died, including women and children.
    Army spokesman Maj. Murad Khan said 15 people died, including seven civilians. He wouldn’t say whether the others were suspected militants.
    Habib Khan Wazir, who lives in the area, said he heard helicopters, then an exchange of fire.
    ‘‘Later, I saw 15 bodies inside and outside two homes. They had been shot in the head,’’ Wazir said by telephone.
    He claimed the dead included women and children and that all were civilians.
    ‘‘There was darkness at the time when the Americans came and killed our innocent people,’’ Wazir said. ‘‘We would have not allowed them to go back alive if they had come to our village in daylight.’’
    Residents said the dead were buried Wednesday.
    The Bush administration Wednesday kept a tight hold on information about the operation and it appeared a limited number of officials were privy to full details.
    Officials across the Pentagon, State Department and White House wouldn’t confirm that the raid had taken place.
    White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to comment. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said: ‘‘I have nothing for you.’’
    And officials allowed the Pakistani foreign ministry complaint to stand without public response, an indication of how politically sensitive the incident could be for the Islamabad government.
    ‘‘You have to assume that there will be a big backlash,’’ said one official who is a South Asia expert.
    ‘‘You have to consider that something like this will be a more-or-less once-off opportunity for which we will have to pay a price in terms of Pakistani cooperation,’’ the official said, suggesting that the target or goal of the raid would have to be very important to warrant the action.
    The civilian government — under pressure from Washington — has also taken a tough line against militants, seeking to persuade a skeptical public that security forces are fighting Islamic extremists for Pakistan’s sake, not Washington’s.
    In a mark of the country’s precarious stability, snipers fired on the motorcade for Pakistan’s prime minister on Wednesday as it drove to the airport to pick him up, striking his car window at least twice, officials said.
    Neither Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani nor his staff were in the vehicles.
    Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the banned militant organization Tahrik-e-Taliban, claimed responsibility and pledged more attacks in retaliation for army operations in tribal areas and the Swat valley.
    The attack was the second apparent assassination attempt in Pakistan in quick succession.
    Shots were fired last week at a car carrying Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in Pakistan’s troubled northwest, as she was headed to her office in the city of Peshawar. No one was hurt in that shooting.
    Murad, the army spokesman, said security forces killed 25 to 30 militants in an offensive Wednesday against militants in Swat, a former tourist destination were Islamic extremists tried to seized control last year.
    Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek in Washington, Munir Ahmad, Zarar Khan and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad, Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul and Constance Brand in Brussels contributed to this report.

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