ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The Pakistan government blamed NATO-led troops in Afghanistan for a cross-border attack that killed at least seven women and children as they prepared to eat breakfast before dawn Wednesday, the second day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The attack, which a NATO spokesman denied, could add pressure to the Pakistani government, being asked by the U.S. to do more against terrorists in the mostly lawless tribal areas while many Pakistanis want the army to do less.
As if to underscore the challenge Pakistani leaders face, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani escaped an apparent assassination attempt on Wednesday afternoon. Gunmen fired two shots into the bulletproof driver's window of his car as the driver was going to pick Gilani up from the airport in neighboring Rawalpindi. No one was injured.
"The prime minister is fine, he's well and he's safe," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a parliament member and spokeswoman for the Pakistan People's Party.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban, the umbrella group for Taliban-led militants in the border areas of Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.
But the bigger crisis for the government on Wednesday was the attack in a village near the town of Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, a tribal agency thought to be home to Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, and a militant stronghold.
The Pakistani army and Foreign Ministry blamed the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Afghanistan for killing innocent civilians in South Waziristan and undermining the joint effort against terrorism. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said the attack was a "gross violation" of Pakistan's territory. Maj. Murad Khan, a spokesman for the Pakistani army, said ISAF troops in two helicopters landed at the village and killed seven innocent people, although other officials said as many as 20 died. Khan condemned the "completely unprovoked act of killing and regretted the loss of precious lives."
He said the Foreign Ministry had protested to the U.S. government and said the Pakistani army reserved the right to retaliate to protect Pakistani citizens.
A Pakistani official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the soldiers who landed in the helicopters stormed into a house and started firing as women cooked breakfast. During Ramadan, many Muslims fast during daylight hours and typically eat a large meal before the sun rises.
"They opened the door and killed innocent people, women preparing for the fast in the morning," the official said. "This is very bad, a really unprovoked act of killing."
Lou Fintor, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Islamabad, said he had no comment on the alleged attack. NATO officials denied it.
It's impossible to verify reports in the tribal areas, off-limits to most journalists and all foreigners. But regardless of whether it's true, it will add to the distrust many Pakistanis have of the war and even drive more in the tribal areas to support the Taliban, counter-insurgency experts said.
This was the harshest Pakistani criticism to date of an alleged cross-border attack by NATO-led troops or the U.S., accused of airstrikes that have killed civilians in the past.