Afghanistan and Pakistan Exchange Heavy Gunfire Along Border
PESHAWAR, Pakistan â€” Pakistani and Afghan forces exchanged heavy gunfire on Sunday and Monday in an unusually serious escalation of tensions at the border, leaving at least 13 people wounded on the Pakistani side and killing at least one Afghan police officer, according to the police and military officials in both countries.
The fighting, which began on Sunday night and resumed Monday, forced the closing of the Torkham border crossing, the busiest between the two countries.
The escalation followed the closing of the Torkham crossing last month after Afghan border security guards objected to the construction of a gate on the Pakistani side. That objection also apparently contributed to the conflict on Sunday, according to official accounts from both sides.
The border remained closed for five days last month but was reopened after a meeting between the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, and Pakistanâ€™s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif.
An official statement by the Pakistan Army late on Sunday accused the Afghan border guards of resorting to an unprovoked attack when work began on the installation of a gate on the Pakistani side.
â€œTorkham is the most frequented crossing point at Pak-Afghan border, and recently even, most of the terrorists have been found using this gate for entry,â€ the brief statement said. â€œIn order to check movement of terrorists through Torkham, Pakistan is constructing a gate on own side of the border as a necessity to check unwanted and illegal movement.â€
The Pakistani Army statement said that one Pakistani soldier had been wounded but that â€œsecurity forces responded to Afghan firing effectively.â€
A senior civil officer of the Khyber tribal region of Pakistan, the site of the Torkham crossing, claimed that the Afghans had fired mortars, rockets and artillery into Pakistani territory starting at 9:20 p.m. Sunday.
â€œShortly before beginning the construction work, we duly informed the Afghan side, although we are under no obligation to do so under international law,â€ the top civilian administrator in Khyber, Khalid Mehmood, said by telephone from the area.
â€œThe Afghan commander went back, switched off the lights on the other side and, before we could figure out what had happened, they started shelling and firing in our direction,â€ Mr. Mehmood said.
A mortar shell hit a house in a nearby Pakistani village, wounding six civilians, the administrator said. Two more civilians were hit by splinters and two paramilitary soldiers were also wounded in the exchange of fire, he added.
After a lull of several hours on Monday, fighting resumed in the late afternoon. Zarawar Zahid, the police chief of Nangarhar Province, on the Afghan side of the crossing, posted a video on Facebook saying that he was near the front line and ordering a mortar barrage against Pakistan.
He appears next to two mortars shouting to his men, â€œStrike hard enough to blow up Nawaz Sharifâ€™s home,â€ referring to the prime minister of Pakistan who lives in Islamabad, the capital, 150 miles from the border.
When fighting resumed Monday afternoon, both sides began firing with heavy weapons, and Pakistani authorities reported that two paramilitary soldiers were wounded. â€œThere is a heavy exchange of fire,â€ Mr. Mehmood said by phone from the area. He said the firing resumed from the Afghan side when the Pakistanis continued construction of the disputed border gate.
Afghan officials blamed Pakistan for initiating the fighting, saying the Pakistanis had fired after the Afghan Border Police tried to stop work on the gate. The Afghan Border Police officerâ€™s body was flown to Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Haroon Chakhansuri, the spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani ofÂ Afghanistan, said Pakistan was violating agreements to work jointly on construction of border crossing facilities.
â€œThey opened fire first, then the Afghan security forces responded to them,â€ he said. â€œWe emphasize that Afghan security forces should always be ready to defend their people.â€
Mr. Chakhansuri said diplomatic efforts were underway to resolve the dispute. But officials on both sides of the border said the situation remained tense.
Contributing to the tensions has been an intensifying offensive by the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership shelters in Pakistan. Afghan officials from Mr. Ghani on down have blamed Pakistan for the collapse of peace talks with the Taliban and for continuing to provide sanctuaries for Taliban leaders and fighters inside Pakistan.
Pakistan has responded by cracking down on Afghan refugees in Pakistan and tightening controls along the normally porous border, making it more difficult than usual for Afghans to travel to Pakistan for education, medical care or trade.