ISLAMABAD/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO’s chief expressed regret on Monday for the deaths of Pakistani soldiers last week and said he hoped Pakistan’s border would reopen for NATO supplies to Afghanistan as soon as possible.
Angered by repeated attacks by NATO helicopters on militant targets within its borders, Pakistan blocked one of the supply routes for NATO troops in Afghanistan after a strike killed three Pakistani soldiers in the western Kurram region.
“I expressed my regret for the incident last week in which Pakistani soldiers lost their lives,” Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after meeting Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Brussels.
“I expressed my hope the border will be open for supplies as soon as possible.”
The apology came after gunmen attacked a convoy of trucks taking goods to Western forces in Afghanistan on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital.
Senior police officer Mirwaiz Niaz said at least a dozen gunmen opened fire on tankers at a depot near Islamabad late on Sunday, killing three guards. They then set fire to 13 vehicles.
Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility.
“We will continue such attacks all over the country to avenge drone attacks and attacks by foreign forces inside Pakistani territory,” Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Hours later, suspected militants attacked trawlers carrying supplies for NATO through the southwestern province of Baluchistan, killing one man, police said.
Pakistan has officially said the border has been closed for security reasons and the Taliban threat of more attacks will likely prolong the closure of the vital supply route — now in its fifth day — and further strain ties with ally Washington, which has long demanded Pakistan crack down on militants.
About half of all non-lethal supplies for western forces in land-locked Afghanistan pass through Pakistan, giving Pakistan considerable leverage over the United States, which is scrambling to contain a raging Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan before it starts withdrawing troops in July next year.
“Efforts are underway to resolve this issue, but there is a lot of anger in Pakistan about the border incursion,” a senior Pakistani government official told Reuters.
ISAF spokesman Major Joel Harper told Reuters in Kabul “recent attacks in Pakistan have no immediate impact — less than 1 percent of all trucks and traffic experience any pilferage or damage.”
“That said ... it is an important element of the Pakistani economy, it’s important to our logistics stocks. As attacks take place, NATO has no alternative but to seek other routes into Afghanistan — we are exploring other logistics routes with other countries in the north.”
NATO maintains a northern distribution network through Russia and central Asian republics for about 30 percent of its non-lethal supplies, Harper said.
Despite its anger, Pakistan can’t afford to long antagonise an ally that provides $2 billion in military aid a year — aid vital for Pakistan’s own fight against militants, analysts say.
“There has to be some solution and I think there will be one. But there is an anger and you have to address it,” a Pakistani security official said.
Officials at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad said despite the protests by Pakistan and the closing of the border, cooperation in flood relief missions and security assistance continues.
“Cooperation is continuing on a lot of levels. Contextually, we’re still in a better place than we were two years ago in terms of cooperation,” said a senior embassy official. “From that perspective, we’re working now to address their concerns.”
Rasmussen said the killing of the three Pakistani soldiers was unintended and showed the need to improve coordination between the NATO and the Pakistani military. He said a joint investigation was under way.
“It is important we step up our cooperation,” he said.
That cooperation could be slow in coming, however, because the U.S. CIA has escalated its unacknowledged campaign of pilotless drone strikes against al Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan’s northwest, with 21 attacks in September, the highest number in a single month on record.
Civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes have infuriated many Pakistanis and made it harder for the government to cooperate with the United States.
The strikes preceded warnings by Britain and the United States of an increased risk of terrorist attacks in Europe, with Washington saying al Qaeda might target transport infrastructure.
Pakistan is under heavy U.S. pressure to crack down harder on militants in the northwest of the country near the Afghan border, parts of which are described as a global hub for extremists.
Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton, Faisal Mehmood and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad, and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sugita Katyal