In an effort to dispel criticism of Pakistan’s handling of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a senior Pakistani official told reporters on Thursday that two Pakistani F-16 fighter jets were airborne as soon as the Pakistan military knew about the operation. But, by that time, he said, the American helicopters were on their way back to Afghanistan.
Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, the first senior Pakistani official to speak publicly in detail about the Bin Laden episode said that the Americans had used technology to evade Pakistani radar.
Alternatively combative and defensive, Mr. Bashir said Washington should abandon the idea that Pakistan was complicit in helping Bin Laden hide in Abbottabad, two hours north of the capital. But Mr. Bashir did not elaborate, saying only that the nation’s spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence, had a “brilliant” record in counterterrorism.
Defending the Pakistani army, the fifth largest in the world, Mr. Bashir said: “Pakistani security forces are neither incompetent or negligent about the sacred duty to the nation to protect Pakistan.”
But after withering criticism at home and abroad about how and why the Pakistani security forces could allow Bin Laden to be in Pakistan, the initial reaction here to Mr. Bashir’s appearance was mixed.
One of Pakistan’s best known television journalists, Kamran Khan, who is regarded as a supporter of the military, dismissed the performance. “They have no answer,” Mr. Khan said. “We have become the biggest haven of terrorism in the world and we have failed to stop it.”
A retired ambassador and newspaper columnist, Zafar Hilaly, who has called for a public inquiry into Pakistan’s military, said that Mr. Bashir erred in seemingly ask for the world’s sympathy by saying 30,000 Pakistani civilians and more than 3000 soldiers had lost their lives combating terrorism.
“The world wants to know whether we are effective,” Mr. Hilaly said.
In his press conference, Mr. Bashir declined to answer a question about whether the American raid was legal or illegal, but implicitly rapped the Obama administrtion, saying, “it’s important for the international community to be mindful of the fact cooperation is a two-way street.”
“To demand co-operation is one thing, to demand cooperation on terms that are civil is important.”
In an apparent response to comments by American officials that the United States decided not to share details in advance with Pakistan because of a lack of trust, Mr. Bashir said: “All we expect is some decency and civility, especially in the public domain.”
The first the Pakistani authorities knew about the operation came when one of the American helicopters involved in the raid crashed at the Bin Laden compound.
“Immediately our armed forces were asked to check whether it was a Pakistani helicopter,” Mr. Bashir said. Although Abbottabad is home to a major military academy and three military regiments, Mr. Bashir said none of these institutions required sophisticated defenses that could have detected the impending raid.
Once the helicopter had crashed it took 15 minutes for military personnel to reach the site, he said.
The general headquarters of the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi were then informed of the American helicopter’s crash, he said. The authorities discovered that Osama bin Laden had been killed in the raid from surviving members of his family, he said.
Pakistan received the first official word about from the United States about the covert operation when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, called the head of the Pakistani army, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, at about 3 a.m. Monday morning Pakistani time, Mr. Bashir said.
That call took some time to arrange, he said, because “secure sets” were needed. Admiral Mullen was the first to raise the issue of Pakistan’s sovereignty in the call, Mr. Bashir said. But he did not specify what exactly Admiral Mullen said. Later, President Obama telephoned the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari.
The relationship between the United States and Pakistan would endure, the foreign secretary said because “we share strategic convergence.”
Mr. Bashir complained indirectly about the American raid as an infringement of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but withheld the stern reprimand he issued two days ago in a statement that said Pakistan would not stand for another covert raid by the United States.
At the news conference, he said, “This matter of sovereignty and violation of sovereignty raises certain legal and moral questions that fall in the domain of the United Nations.”