ISLAMABAD, Sept 10: Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has rejected US claims that the rules of engagement gave the coalition forces in Afghanistan the right to enter Pakistan and declared that the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will be defended at all costs.

In a statement issued here on Wednesday, the COAS said: “The rules of engagement with the coalition forces are well defined and within that the right to conduct operations against the militants inside own territory is solely the responsibility of the respective armed forces.

“There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border,” he said.Gen Kayani’s statement dispelled a perception that some of the air strikes carried out inside Pakistan by drones and warplanes of the US-led coalition had been authorised by Islamabad.

The statement has come on the heels of President George Bush’s description of the Afghan-Pakistan border area as a frontline in the war on terror and against the backdrop of a series of incursions by Nato forces in which missiles were fired from unmanned drones in the tribal areas and at least one incident ground troops attacked the Angoor Adda area of South Waziristan.

Observers here saw in the COAS statement a strong rebuttal of the oft-repeated assertions by the western media and political and military figures that US and Nato forces in Afghanistan had a ‘right’ to take their war on terror into Pakistan.

Pakistan has been asserting that any credible information about terrorists in Pakistan should be provided to it and that its forces were fully capable of acting on it.

Although it was not the first attack by Nato forces inside Pakistan, the increase in the frequency of attacks days before the presidential election in Pakistan was seen by many as a major shift in the US policy towards Pakistan.

The army chief referred to his meeting with US senior officers on the USS Abraham Lincoln on August 27 and said that they had been informed about the complexity of the issue that required an in-depth understanding and more patience for evolving a comprehensive solution. He said that Pakistan’s viewpoint was elaborated in detail and it was stressed that in such situations, the military action alone could not solve the problem. Political reconciliatory efforts were required along with military action to win hearts and minds of the people.

During the discussion, the imperative of public support at large for military operations also came under discussion.

Later, United States Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen acknowledged a better understanding of ground realities by the COAS and remarked: “He (the COAS) is committed to doing what is best for Pakistan and he is going to stay the same.” He reiterated that ultimately it was “our national interest which will always guide our policy”.

General Kayani also regretted the killing of innocent civilians in the Angoor Adda incident on Sept 4. He said that such ‘reckless actions’ only helped the militants and further fuelled the militancy in the area. He said the Pakistan Army had conducted successful operations against the militants in the past and at present was committed to eliminating them from the affected areas of Fata and Swat.

“Our security forces have given huge sacrifices in this war and it is the presence of the army which has denied the freedom of movement and operation to Al Qaeda and the affiliates.” He said that the support of the people of Pakistan would play a decisive role.

The COAS stressed the need for a collaborative approach for better understanding of a highly complex issue. He said that trust-deficit and misunderstandings could lead to more complications and increase the difficulties for all. The constraints of operating in these areas must never be lost sight of.

“There are no quick fixes in this war. Falling for short-term gains while ignoring our long-term interest is not the right way forward. To succeed, the coalition forces will be required to display strategic patience and help the other side the way they want it rather than adopting a unilateral approach which may be counter productive.”

General Kayani said it was a multi-pronged approach fully supported by the people of Pakistan which would help “us defeat the threat of internal terrorism”.

The increased incursions by Nato forces into Pakistan were discussed recently in parliament with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi describing the raids as “regrettable and counter-productive”.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who addressed a press conference with President Asif Ali Zardari hours after the latter was sworn in as the new head of state, also voiced concern over the killing of civilians in the two countries and said that civilian killings could not be tolerated. He said that sanctuaries of the terrorists, and not the civilians, should be the target.

The attacks also forced Pakistan to discontinue logistic support to the Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Besides air strikes, helicopter-borne American Special Operations forces recently attacked Al Qaeda militants in a Pakistani village near the Afghan border -- the first publicly acknowledged case of US forces having conducted a ground raid on Pakistani soil.

Previously, allied forces in Afghanistan occasionally carried out air strikes and artillery attacks in the border region of Pakistan.

But the commando raid by the American forces signalled what top American officials said could be the opening salvo in a much broader campaign by Special Operations forces against the Taliban and Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, a secret plan that Defence Secretary Robert Gates has been advocating for months within President Bush’s war council, a US paper recently commented.

The Bush administration has criticised Pakistan in recent months for not doing enough to curb attacks by the Taliban and Al Qaeda which keep bases inside the Pakistani tribal region and cross the border to attack American and Nato forces in Afghanistan.