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Pakistani FM suggests the time has come to reopen Afghan border to NATO supplies
ISLAMABAD (AP) ' Pakistan's foreign minister suggested Monday that the country should open its Afghan border to NATO troop supplies, saying the government has made its point by closing the route for nearly six months in retaliation for deadly U.S. airstrikes on its troops.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's comments offered the clearest indication yet that Pakistan is ready to give in to U.S. pressure to reopen the supply line, even though Washington has so far refused to apologize for last year's attack and end drone strikes in the country as demanded by Pakistan's parliament.
The Pakistani government is likely to face domestic backlash for reopening the NATO route given rampant anti-American sentiment in the country and vocal opposition to the move by hard-line Islamists and their political allies who are still angry the U.S. killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Washington says the November attack was an accident.
But reopening the route also would have clear benefits.
Pakistan is keen to attend a two-day NATO summit in Chicago starting Sunday that will largely focus on the Afghan war, and an invitation is likely contingent on the country allowing troop supplies to resume. The move could also free up over $1 billion in U.S. military aid that has been frozen for the last year.
"It was important to make a point, Pakistan has made a point and now we can move on," Khar said during a press conference in Islamabad when asked whether she believed Pakistan should reopen the supply route.
The foreign minister sought to focus on Pakistan's demand that it receive higher fees for NATO supplies that are shipped through the country, likely because this is an issue where the U.S. has indicated greater flexibility.
A team of U.S. negotiators has been in the country for several weeks working out the nuts and bolts of a potential agreement to reopen the supply line, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Pakistan's defense committee of the Cabinet, which is responsible for deciding the fate of the NATO supply route, was scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the issue and could authorize its reopening.
Before the November attack, about 30 percent of the nonfatal supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan were unloaded at the port of Karachi and then trucked across Pakistan to the border. The United States has reduced its reliance on Pakistan in recent years by using an alternate route that runs through Central Asia, but it is significantly more expensive.
Khar and other officials also have pointed out that a continuation of the blockade would punish other NATO countries for U.S. actions, possibly an attempt to limit the domestic fallout from any decision to reopen the route.
But the response could be fierce. One group in particular, the Difa-e-Pakistan, or Defense of Pakistan, Council, has been especially vocal in opposing the resumption of NATO supplies. The group is composed of prominent hard-line Islamist religious leaders and politicians.
Some in the media have claimed the movement has the tacit support of the Pakistani military, possibly to pressure Washington.
The U.S. has expressed its condolences for the airstrikes that killed Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts last year. But that wasn't enough for Pakistan, where the army has claimed the attack seemed deliberate.
Seeking political cover, the Pakistani government threw the issue to parliament, which used the opportunity to try to renegotiate the country's relationship with the U.S.
Parliament demanded an "unconditional apology" for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers and an end to U.S. drone strikes. Although it did not explicitly link these demands to reopening the supply line, they have complicated matters because the U.S. has refused to budge.
Analysts have speculated that the Obama administration is reluctant to apologize for the errant airstrikes because of potential criticism from Congress and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney. Anger at Pakistan is high in the U.S. because of the country's alleged support for Islamist militants killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well as the discovery that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden lived in the country for years before he was killed in a U.S. raid.
U.S. officials have said in private that they have no intention of stopping covert CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, which they see as key to targeting militants in the country who pose a threat to the West. The strikes are immensely unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, allegations disputed by the U.S. and independent research.
Pakistan is widely believed to have supported some of the strikes in the past, although that cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the Washington and Islamabad has deteriorated.
Pakistan's foreign minister sought to play down the U.S. refusal to accede to the parliament's demands on Monday, saying the important thing was that the government had pressed Washington on the issues.
Also, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira seemed to offer a somewhat softer stance on the issue of drone strikes during the press conference. He pointed out that protests against the attacks were more prominent in Pakistani cities like Islamabad and Lahore than in the tribal region where the strikes take place.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.