WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officer on Wednesday denied allegations by a senior army official in Islamabad that a NATO attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers was a deliberate act of aggression.
Islamabad has reacted angrily to the attack last weekend, which threatens to set back peace efforts in Afghanistan, by pulling out of an international conference in Germany next week on Afghanistan's future. It stood by its decision on Wednesday despite German hopes to the contrary.
NATO helicopters and fighter jets attacked two military border posts in northwest Pakistan on Saturday in the worst incident of its kind since Islamabad allied itself with Washington in 2001 in the war on militancy.
In comments carried in local newspapers on Wednesday that characterized the attack as blatant aggression, Major General Ishfaq Nadeem, Pakistan's director general of military operations, said NATO forces were alerted they were attacking Pakistani posts but helicopters kept firing.
"Detailed information of the posts was already with ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), including map references, and it was impossible that they did not know these to be our posts," The News quoted Nadeem as saying at an editors' briefing at army headquarters on Tuesday.
But General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Reuters in an interview, "The one thing I will say publicly and categorically is that this was not a deliberate attack.
Speaking as he flew back to Washington after a trip to London, Dempsey said he was trying to discuss the incident with Pakistan behind closed doors.
"Candidly we don't want to try to resolve this issue through the media. No offense," he said.
Dempsey declined to discuss details of the U.S. military's review into the incident, but asked, "What in the world would we gain by attacking a Pakistan border post?"
Nadeem said the NATO helicopters appeared near the post around 15 to 20 minutes past midnight, opened fire, then left about 45 minutes later. They reappeared at 1:15 a.m. local time and attacked again for another hour, he said.
Dempsey said the military was pouring over its own data from the incident.
"We're in the process of reviewing radio traffic, gun tapes, all of the things that an investigation has to consider before I can really make any statement about the duration," Dempsey said.
"But I can say, categorically, it was not a deliberate attack."
The NATO attack shifted attention away from Pakistan's widely questioned performance against militants who cross its border to attack U.S. and other NATO forces in Afghanistan, and has given the military a chance to reassert itself.
"It is definitely not Pakistan's intention to work against the rest of the world," Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Dawn News television on Wednesday.
"But the rest of the world also has to understand that if they have pushed Pakistan into this corner, violated red lines, then they have denied the basis of partnership," she said.
Islamabad's decision to boycott next week's meeting in Bonn will deprive the talks of a key player that could nudge Taliban militants into a peace process as NATO combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
In Berlin, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said Pakistan had not yet formally withdrawn and that Islamabad had "a big interest" in the meeting being a success. Within minutes, a Foreign Ministry official in Islamabad told Reuters that Tuesday's decision was "the final word.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier on Wednesday she regretted Pakistan's decision hoped to secure Islamabad's cooperation in future.
The army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history and sets security and foreign policy, faced strong criticism from both the Pakistani public and its ally, the United States, after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The al Qaeda leader had apparently been living in a Pakistani garrison town for years before U.S. special forces found and killed him in a unilateral raid in May.
Pakistanis criticized the military for failing to protect their sovereignty, and angry U.S. officials wondered whether some members of military intelligence had sheltered him. Pakistan's government and military said they had no idea bin Laden was in the country.
The army seems to have regained its confidence, and won the support of the public and the government in a country where anti-American sentiment often runs high.
More than 1,000 Pakistani religious students protested in Lahore city, yelling, "Death to NATO" and "Death to America."
"If NATO and America do something like this again, we are going to turn Pakistan into their graveyard," said 23-year-old university student Zahoor Ahmad.
In the financial hub Karachi, women and children were among about 2,000 protesters. "The government should end all relations with the United States," said Khadija Subzwari, a mother of four. In Multan, protesters burned an effigy of U.S. President Barack Obama and an American flag.
NATO hopes an investigation it promised will defuse the crisis and that confidence-building measures can repair ties.
But the military is firmly focused on NATO, and analysts say it is likely to take advantage of the widespread anger to press its interests in any future peace talks on Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Qasim Nauman in ISLAMABAD, Mubasher Bukhari in LAHORE, Asim Tanveer in MULTAN, Saud Mehsud in DERA ISMAIL KHAN and Faisal Aziz in KARACHI, and Stephen Brown, Erik Kirschbaum and Sylvia Westall in BERLIN; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Cooney