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Pakistan poised to resume NATO supply lines

NATO supply line into Afghanistan (© 2009 AFP)

Pakistan on Tuesday looked poised to end a nearly six-month blockade of NATO ground supply routes into Afghanistan, succumbing to a key demand of the West ahead of a summit in Chicago next week.

Islamabad shut its Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies after US air strikes killed 24 soldiers last November, provoking a new crisis in ties on top of the outcry from the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May that year.

On Tuesday, civilian and military leaders are to discuss reopening the supply route at a meeting of the defence committee of cabinet, which will be followed by a meeting of army chiefs and the regular cabinet on Wednesday.

Sources familiar with the discussions told AFP the government had already effectively taken the decision to reopen the lines, probably by the beginning of next week, and hoped to be invited to the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago.

Pakistani and US officials had reached a “broad agreement” on fees and logistics for the fuel and other non-military supplies that would go overland through Pakistan to Afghanistan, one source said.

“The meetings will indicate that the decision has the backing of all the stakeholders,” the source told AFP.

“This should minimise the prospect for Islamist groups to exploit the situation in the hope that they’ll get the backing of the military establishment.”

Pakistan has called in vain for an end to US drone strikes targeting Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants on its soil, and a formal apology for the November air strikes.

Analysts say Pakistan has no choice but to reopen the border.

Its relationship with the United States is key to maintaining ties with multilateral lending agencies needed to help boost its state coffers, at a time when major NATO discussions are under way affecting its own strategic future.

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said on Monday that it was time to “move on”, in the strongest public sign yet that Pakistan will end the blockade.

“It was important to make a point, Pakistan has made a point and we now need to move on and go into a positive zone and try to conduct our relations,” Khar told a news conference.

“We are trying to put this relationship, you know, in a positive zone and I am quite sure that we will be successful in doing so.”

The Pakistani cabinet’s defence committee, which includes the prime minister, army chief of staff and intelligence chief, will convene from 1430 GMT.

Pakistan’s involvement in the Chicago summit could minimise its international isolation and boost the country’s leverage over the future of Afghanistan, as NATO countries pull out their combat forces by 2014.

The US State Department said both countries had made “considerable progress” on ending the blockade, which has held up lengthy convoys of fuel and supply trucks all the way to the port city of Karachi in the south.

“They are not yet finished with the Pakistanis,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

“But we’re having a full review with the government of Pakistan on how this transit system works and all of the issues are on the table in that context.”

The Pakistan supply routes constitute as little as 25 percent of what NATO needs to sustain itself in Afghanistan as the United States has made increasing use of more expensive routes into northern Afghanistan.

Mir Mohammad Yousuf Shahwani, chairman of the All Pakistan Oil Tanker Owners Association told AFP he had been informed by a senior official in the petroleum ministry that Pakistan would reopen the supply line within days.

“The petroleum official told me that they are finalising the details,” he told AFP from Karachi.

Islamabad reiterated Monday that it would still like an apology for the November air strikes, with the foreign minister saying it was “on the table”.

The United States has expressed regret for the deaths, which an American and NATO investigation said stemmed from mistakes made on both sides during fighting on the Afghan border with Pakistan.

Signature : Jennie Matthew ISLAMABAD (AFP)

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