Have to make critical decisions on Pak-US-NATO ties: Gilani

Islamabad: Pakistan`s relations with the US and NATO are passing through a "delicate phase" and Islamabad needs to make "critical decisions" linked to national interests, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said today against the backdrop of a partial thaw in relations between Washington and Islamabad.

"Our relations with NATO and the US are passing through a delicate phase where we need to take critical decisions keeping in view our strategic importance in the region and our national interests," Gilani said in his remarks at a meeting of his cabinet that was convened to discuss key issues, including the ending of a nearly six-month blockade of NATO supply routes.

The premier`s remarks came a day after the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, the country`s highest decision making body on security issues, endorsed President Asif Ali Zardari`s participation in a crucial NATO Summit next week and directed officials to conclude negotiations aimed at reopening supply routes for foreign forces in Afghanistan.

NATO on Tuesday extended an unconditional invitation to President Zardari to attend the summit to be held in Chicago during May 20-21 after Islamabad indicated it was prepared to end the blockade of supply routes imposed after a cross-border NATO air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November. The US had linked Pakistan`s participation in the summit to the reopening of the supply lines.

"We did not and will not compromise on our principled stand but would also not take emotional decisions, which do not auger well for us in the long run," Gilani told the cabinet meeting in an apparent reference to Pakistan`s demands for an apology for the NATO attack and for an end to US drone strikes.

Pakistan`s insistence on an apology for the NATO air strike had hampered efforts by Washington and Islamabad to put their relations back on an even keel. Recent remarks by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar have indicated that Pakistan intends to climb down on the demand for an apology.

Asked about the issue at a news conference on Monday, Khar had said the government had made its point by closing the supply routes for nearly six months in retaliation for the air strike. She further said the time had come for Pakistan to "move on" and repair relations with the US. Official sources said the government had decided in principle to reopen the NATO supply routes.

An agreement on terms and conditions for transporting supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan, including levies to be paid to Pakistan, is expected to be finalised before Zardari`s visit to Chicago. A source familiar with decision-making on the issue told PTI that some officials wanted the President to announce the reopening of the supply routes during his speech at the NATO Summit.

Relations between Pakistan and the US plunged to a new low last year following a string of crises, including the unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the NATO attack. The Pakistan government is keen to attend the NATO Summit, which will focus on the endgame in Afghanistan, as it wants to retain its influence in the war-torn country after the expected withdrawal of Western troops by 2014. Pakistan had boycotted the last major meeting on Afghanistan that was held in Bonn in December.

Analysts said the decision-making in Islamabad has also been influenced by the linking of US aid to the reopening of the supply routes. The Pakistan government, which is finalising the budget for the next fiscal, has an eye on the release of US aid of over one billion dollars for the war on terrorism. Pakistan was earlier paid a fee of 160 dollars for every NATO container and is now negotiation for a fee of 300 dollars to 500 dollars, sources said. The government has also said it will only allow the transportation of non-lethal supplies through Pakistani territory.