Clinton, Panetta work to defuse tensions after NATO air strike in Pakistan

U.S. officials huddled with Pakistani leaders Saturday to defuse new tensions spawned by an attack that led Islamabad to shut down routes used to move supplies to American forces in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.

In a statement issued late Saturday, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton express their “deepest condolences for the loss of life.” The strike killed between two dozen and 28 Pakistani soldiers, according to media reports.

Notably, the Pentagon statement did not express regret for the attack.

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NATO, which oversees the allied mission there and technically carried out the attack, has confirmed a strike occurred in Northwest Pakistan. The alliance says it is investigating the incident.

It was not immediately clear whether NATO launched the strike in an attempt to take out a specific target. A Pentagon official contacted Saturday night by The Hill declined to comment, saying only that the incident is under investigation.

It also was not immediately clear why NATO forces would destroy a site that both was manned by Pakistani troops and used for resupplying its own forces.

Some media reports from the region as of late Saturday still were referring to the attacked facilities as border checkpoints; others, like one Reuters report, referred to the smoldering sites as “military outposts.”

Panetta and Clinton spent Saturday “closely monitoring” reports of a NATO strike on a checkpoint along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that Islamabad said killed 26 of its soldiers.

Pakistan retaliated by shuttering supply routes into Afghanistan and calling for the United States to “vacate” an air base allegedly used to launch drone attacks.

Clinton, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, all called their Pakistani counterparts Saturday.

“In their contacts, these U.S. diplomatic and military leaders each stressed -- in addition to their sympathies and a commitment to review the circumstances of the incident -- the importance of the U.S.-Pakistani partnership, which serves the mutual interests of our people,” according to the Pentagon statement. “All these leaders pledged to remain in close contact with their Pakistani counterparts going forward as we work through this challenging time.”

The incident marked the latest escalation in an already tense U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

Using bold rhetoric, Islamabad blasted the attack, calling it "unprovoked" and "irresponsible," according to news sources.

Reuters reported earlier Saturday that a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman confirmed that aircraft supporting alliance troops in the area had "likely caused the Pakistan casualties.”

The Pakistani government also demanded that American forces halt operations from Shamsi air base, according to media reports. The base, located in a remote western region of the country is believed to have housed American armed drones which have struck targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

-- Alicia M. Cohn contributed.