KARACHI (Reuters) – Suspected militants in Pakistan set fire to three dozen tankers carrying fuel for NATO troops in Afghanistan on Friday, officials said, a day after three soldiers were killed in a cross-border NATO air strike.
Angered by repeated incursions by NATO helicopters over the past week, Pakistan has blocked a supply route for coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is a crucial ally for the United States in its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, but analysts say border incursions and disruptions inNATO supplies underline growing tensions in the relationship.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official said the border incursions could lead to a “total snapping of relations.” But U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke told a forum in Washington the current tensions were unlikely to “change the fundamental relationship between our two countries.”
Senior local officials blamed “extremists” for the attack on the tankers in the southern town of Shikarpur. About 12 people, their faces covered, opened fire with small arms into the air to scare away the drivers and then set fire to 35 tankers.
“Some of them have been completely destroyed and others partially. But there is no loss of human life,” Shikarpur police chief Abdul Hameed Khoso told Reuters.
In a separate incident, two unidentified men fired on a NATO tanker traveling through a town in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province toward Afghanistan. Two people burned to death after the vehicle caught fire, security officials said.
Police arrested 10 people after the earlier attack, including five netted from a raid on an Islamic seminary, or madrasa.
The tankers were parked at a filling station on their way to Afghanistan from Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi.
Thursday, three Pakistani soldiers were killed and three wounded in two cross-border incursions by NATO forces chasing militants in Pakistan’s northwestern Kurram region.
It was the third cross-border incident in a week, the Pakistan military said. NATO said the helicopters briefly crossed into Pakistan airspace after coming under fire from people there.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, speaking in parliament, said Pakistan was a partner in the war against Islamist militancy, but would allow no infringement of its sovereignty.
“I want to assure the entire nation from this house that we will consider other options if there is interference in the sovereignty of our country,” Gilani said without elaborating.
Pakistan’s ambassador to Belgium lodged a protest with NATO’s deputy general secretary over the incursions, the Pakistan embassy said in a statement.
Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Washington Ideas Forum the border incident was “very unfortunate” and that the NATO secretary general had expressed his regrets, which Holbrooke echoed.
Despite tensions, analysts say a rift is unlikely between Pakistan and its Western allies as each side needs the other.
The European Union said it had decided to more than double its Pakistan flood aid to 150 million euros ($205 million).
Thursday, hours after the cross-border attack, Pakistani authorities halted tankers carrying supplies for the NATO forces passing through the Khyber tribal region on the Afghan border.
About three-quarters of the cargo for NATO forces in Afghanistan moves through Pakistan, mostly via twoborder crossings: Chaman north of Quetta in Baluchistan and Torkham at the Khyber Pass.
Another third flows into Afghanistan through the northern distribution network across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Sensitive gear like ammunition, weapons and critical equipment is flown in.
Officials say supplies through Chaman continue uninterrupted.
Holbrooke said it was “inconceivable” that border crossings in the Khyber region would face any long closure because of the “colossal effect” it would have on the surrounding area.
PAKISTAN UNDER SPOTLIGHT
Pakistan has again come under the spotlight after Western intelligence sources said a plot to stage attacks in Europe had been disrupted by an upsurge in missile strikes by U.S. drones.
Security officials said they had no evidence of a plot being hatched in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Most recent drone strikes have taken place in the northwestern North Waziristan region.
“It’s no secret that there are terrorists from all nationalities in North Waziristan. They are Arabs, Uzbeks, Pakistani, Afghan, Chechans, German, Brits, Americans, everyone. And they are threat to us, to their own countries and to the entire world,” a senior security official said.
“But to say that we have any specific information that they were plotting attacks against this country or that country, then sir, we don’t have any concrete information or intelligence about that.”
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shaikh and Zeeshan Haider, and David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ron Popeski)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Assailants in Pakistan launched two separate attacks Friday on vehicles carrying fuel for NATO and American forces in Afghanistan, highlighting the vulnerability of the U.S.-led mission a day after Pakistan closed a major border crossing.
A truck driver and his assistant were burned alive in the second attack on a single tanker in the parking lot of a restaurant in southeastern Baluchistan province, said police officer Mohammad Azam. He said “anti-state elements” were behind the attack.
That term could refer to Islamist militants or separatist rebels active in the region.
Earlier Friday, suspected militants torched 27 tankers carrying oil for troops in Afghanistan in Sindh province.
Around 80 percent of the fuel, spare parts, clothing and other non-lethal supplies for foreign forces in landlocked Afghanistan travels throughPakistan after arriving in the southern Arabian sea port of Karachi. The alliance has other supply routes to Afghanistan, but the Pakistani ones are the cheapest and most convenient.
The Pakistani government shut the Torkham border crossing in the northwest on Thursday in apparent protest of a NATO helicopter incursion that killed three of its soldiers on the border. It kept open the Chaman crossing in Baluchistan, where it seemed likely the vehicles attacked Friday were heading.
The closure raised tensions between Pakistan and the United States, which have a close but often troubled alliance in the fight against militants.
Islamist militants regularly attack NATO supply tankers in Pakistan, mostly in the northwestern border region where their influence is stronger.
In Sindh, around 10 gunmen attacked the tankers when they were parked at an ordinary truck stop on the edge of Shikarpur town shortly after midnight. They forced the drivers and other people there to flee before setting the fires, said police officer Abdul Hamid Khoso.
Another officer, Nisar Ahmed, said the tankers had arrived in Shikarpur from Karachi and were heading to Quetta, a major city in the southwest. From there, the road leads to Chaman.
Attacks on NATO and U.S. supply convoys in Pakistan give militants a propaganda victory, but coalition officials say they do not result in shortages in Afghanistan. Some of the attacks are believed to be the work of criminals or in Baluchistan, separatists. Some officials allege truck owners may be behind some of them, perhaps to fraudulently claim insurance.
The vast majority of the convoys, however, through the country unharmed and the frequency of attacks reported in the media does not appear to have risen much, if at all, over the last two years.
In recent years, the alliance has sought to shift more of the supplies through Central Asian countries north of Afghanistan and Russia, aware of the problems of relying too much on Pakistan, which some argue does not share America’s strategic goals in the region.
There is a risk, albeit small, that militant attacks could one day seriously squeeze supplies. But the overriding concern is that hosting the supply routes gives Islamabad immense leverage in its relationship with Washington. The United States cannot force Pakistan to, say, crack down on militants in the northwest behind attacks in Afghanistan because Islamabad holds a trump card: it can cut off most of the supplies to the war whenever it wants.
Pakistani security forces provide guards for the trucks and tankers in the northwest, but generally do not do so in southern and central Pakistan, where attacks are rarer. Pakistani security officials had warned after two alleged NATO helicopter incursions last weekend that they would stop providing protection to NATO convoys if it happened again.
In Brussels on Friday, Pakistani Ambassador Jalil Abbas Jilani met with NATO leaders and lodged a formal protest over the border incursions. In Pakistan, government officials said they had to take a stand.
“If the NATO forces keep on entering into Pakistan and carrying out attacks, then (the) only option we have — we should stop the movement of the containers,” Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar said.
Opinion polls show many Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy, and conspiracy theories abound of U.S. troops wanting to attack Pakistan and take over its nuclear weapons. The Pakistani government has to balance its support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan — and its need for billions of dollars in American aid — with maintaining support from its own population.
The decision to close to the border has underscored the uneasy relations.
Pakistan said two NATO choppers fired on one of its border posts in the northwest’s Kurram tribal region, killing three Pakistani soldiers Thursday. NATO said its helicopters entered Pakistani airspace and hit a target only after receiving ground fire. The alliance expressed condolences to the families of the soldiers and said it would investigate the incident.
It was the third alleged incursion by NATO helicopters into the northwest in the last week.
A lengthy closure of Torkham would place intense strain on the U.S.-Pakistani relationship and hurt the Afghan war effort. But that is seen as unlikely, as neither Islamabad nor Washington can afford a meltdown in ties at a crucial time in the 9-year-old war.
At Torkham, some 150 containers were waiting Friday for the border to reopen. The truck drivers were getting impatient and worried about the prospect of militant attacks.
“I might have not come here with NATO material if I knew that I will have to face this problem,” said Shalif Khan. “We are forced to spend the day and the night in the open. We do not have any security here.”
Associated Press writer Riaz Khan in Torkham, Pakistan, contributed to this report.