The Pakistani government reacted angrily yesterday after a Nato air assault killed as many as 60 militants in Pakistani territory.
The cross-border strike came in response to an attack on Afghan forces stationed at a remote border outpost. After US gunships crossed into Pakistani airspace to chase the militants, Nato defended the action as "self-defence", while US officials claimed they have an agreement with Pakistan to enter its territory if in hot pursuit of enemy targets. But the Pakistani ministry of foreign affairs called it a "clear violation and breach of the UN mandate" and dismissed the idea that there were agreed conditions under which coalition forces could enter Pakistan.
The Afghan police commander who came under attack praised the helicopter strikes, calling the battle "a very effective operation against the militants". Around 60 militants were killed, he said, and police collected ammunition and weapons from the battlefield. Nato provided a slightly more conservative casualty figure of 49.
At the same time, reports emerged that a British national and three Afghans had been abducted in Kunar, further to the north and part of the same mountain valley system where 10 aid workers were murdered by insurgents last month. Police said they exchanged shots with the kidnappers, who then made off with four employees of a company handling US-funded development projects in the area.
Underlining the delicate balance between war and reconciliation, US commander General David Petraeus endorsed Hamid Karzai's negotiations with "very high-level Taliban leaders", comparing the route to peace to Iraq and Northern Ireland. "This is how you end insurgencies," General Petraeus told reporters. "There are signs that they are ready for talks."
But those sentiments were not apparent in Khost province. In a statement clarifying its reasons for launching an attack in Pakistan, Nato said that Afghan National Security forces at a remote outpost "received direct and indirect fire at Combat Outpost Narizah near the Pakistan border. An air weapons team in the area observed the enemy fire, and following [Nato] rules of engagement, crossed into the area of enemy fire. The [Nato] aircraft then engaged, killing more than 30 insurgents."
On the following day, Saturday, two helicopters "returned to the border area" where they "were engaged by small-arms fire. The aircraft returned fire, resulting in several additional insurgents killed".
Khost province nestles up against Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area and has been a thoroughfare for militants criss-crossing the border since the 1980s. Four suspected US drone strikes have been reported against militants there in the past three days.
The most prominent insurgent group operating in this part of the country is the Haqqani Network, which is said to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan. The network has the closest links to al-Qa'ida of any group fighting inside Afghanistan, and the movement's leader, Siraj Haqqani, recently boasted that the relationship had never been stronger.
The coalition claims to have detained "known facilitators of improvised explosive devices" and "suspected insurgents" in separate raids last week.