ISLAMABAD - Pakistan on Saturday strongly refuted U.S. claims that American troops had the right to enter Pakistan territory in pursuit of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters crossing from Afghanistan.
A U.S. warplane dropped a large bomb on disputed land near the Afghan-Pakistan frontier last weekend after a man dressed as a Pakistani border guard opened fire on U.S. troops inside Afghanistan, wounding one.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan said on Friday that it had the right to cross into Pakistan in pursuit of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, adding that Pakistan had been aware of the "long-standing policy."
Muslim protesters participate in an anti-U.S. demonstration in Lahore, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. 3, 2003. Hard-line Islamic leaders called for the demonstrations in all the major cities in Pakistan to protest a potential U.S.-led war against Iraq. The banner translates as' We protest against the FBI operations.'(AP Photo/ K. M. Chaudary)
But Pakistan Foreign Minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri said on Saturday: "Operations within Pakistani territory would be conducted solely and exclusively by our own forces and in response to decisions taken by Pakistan.
"Our forces are fully capable of securing and protecting Pakistan's borders," he added, reading from a prepared statement.
According to Kasuri, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf spoke about the incident by telephone on Friday and agreed it may have been due to a "misunderstanding at the operational level on the ground."
"They reiterated the need to further strengthen coordination to ensure that such incidents do not happen in future," he said.
Kasuri also underlined Pakistan's support for the "global coalition against terrorism" and pointed to Washington's appreciation of Islamabad's decision to back U.S. military action in Afghanistan and its hunt for terrorists in Pakistan.
RED FACES, GRAY AREAS
But the incident has become a diplomatic headache both for Washington and one of its key allies in the war on terror, and has fueled already strong anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan.
Hardline Islamic parties who tapped that sentiment to make huge electoral gains in October seized on the clash as a case of Pakistan ceding sovereignty to the world's only superpower.
They mobilized thousands of people to march through major cities on Saturday to protest against U.S. military operations in the region and a possible attack on Iraq.
The U.S. military said it had never exercised its "right" to cross into Pakistan, and that the bomb its warplane dropped on a religious seminary in the town of Angor Adda following Sunday's clash had landed on Afghan, not Pakistan territory.
Pakistani officials refuted that claim, although presidential spokesman Major-General Rashid Qureshi told state television that there were "ambiguous" areas along the porous border drawn up by the British in 1893.
Musharraf threw his weight behind the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and has allowed a handful of U.S. intelligence agents to operate in Pakistan.
Pakistan has 60-70,000 troops along its Afghan frontier to help stop al Qaeda and Taliban members escaping the huge U.S.-led manhunt in Afghanistan.
But sympathy for the fugitives is strong among ethnic Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border.
The United States has expressed frustration at the apparent ease with which many suspected militants have managed to cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
© 2003 Reuters Limited