ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's government eased its rhetoric Saturday against unilateral U.S. attacks on militant havens near the Afghan border, saying it hopes quiet diplomacy will persuade Washington that the raids only inflame sentiment against leaders of both countries.
Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar claimed Washington already has agreed to curtail its military activities against militants in Pakistan, although a missile strike Friday killed at least 12 people.
Most U.S. cross-border activity has been limited to missiles fired by unmanned drone aircraft. But in a Sept. 3 attack, helicopter-borne U.S. ground forces were used in an operation that killed at least 15, an escalation of U.S. military force.
"As far as my information, we have taken it up at the highest level with the State Department and Pentagon," Mukhtar said in an apparent reference to the U.S. using ground forces.
"They have given us assurance that it would not be repeated. The agreement we have with them is that we will exchange information and the Pakistan military or (paramilitary) forces will take action against terrorists in Pakistan," Mukhtar added.
The White House declined comment on the remarks, as it largely has done since reports emerged Thursday that President Bush secretly approved more aggressive cross-border operations in July as part of a strategy to fight the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
Since Aug. 13, there have been at least seven reported missile strikes, as well as the ground forces operation, in tribally governed territory where the government has little control. The border region is considered a likely hiding place for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Top government officials indicated Pakistan was trying to avoid an outright confrontation with Washington, its ally and financial supporter, after the main opposition party suggested the country should consider dropping out of the war on terror if cross-border attacks continue.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told reporters late Friday Pakistan would prefer to resolve any issue with Washington through diplomatic channels, adding that the issue will be discussed on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York later this month.
"Due to this American policy, the tribal people will join militants and our work will be damaged," he said hours after the latest missile strike. "We will not allow anyone to interfere inside our country.
"It is not that we will launch any attack. We will try to convince America, we will try to convince Britain that they should respect the sovereignty of Pakistan, and God willing, we will be able to convince them."
However, Pakistan's army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has vowed to protect the country's sovereignty "at all cost."
A group of tribal elders representing about a half-million people in the North Waziristan area, where most of the missile attacks have occurred, threatened Saturday to join forces with Taliban militants in Afghanistan.
"If America doesn't stop attacks in tribal areas, we will prepare an army to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan," chief tribal elder Malik Nasrullah told a news conference in Miran Shah, the area's largest city. "We will also seek support from the tribal elders in Afghanistan to fight jointly against America."
Small demonstrations against the U.S. incursions, each drawing about 50 people, were held Saturday in Karachi, Lahore and Quetta. They were organized by the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party of cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan. Some carried placards reading "Bush worst example of human rights violations."
The government and military have issued stiff protests to Washington, although the criticism appeared to be mostly aimed at soothing domestic anger because Pakistan really has few options to influence U.S. policy short of opening fire on allied forces or severing relations.
Mukhtar reiterated Pakistan's contention that it is doing all it can to fight militancy and is suffering as a result, with more than 1,000 security forces killed since the country allied itself with Washington in its war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Pakistan's military said Saturday it killed at least 96 militants and lost eight forces in four days of fighting in the Bajur tribal area near the Afghan border.
Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the U.S. has to be careful not to dismiss the help it is getting from Pakistan.
He called the raid by ground forces a "risky maneuver" and said "too many of these operations will make the Pakistani army less willing to work with us," which could negatively affect future U.S. leadership.