NATO invites Zardari to Chicago, Prez likely to go

Islamabad: NATO today invited Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to its crucial upcoming Chicago summit, a day after Foreign Minister Khar publicly indicated Pakistan`s willingness to end its six-month blockade of supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary General Rasmussen telephoned Zardari in the afternoon and invited him to the NATO summit in Chicago beginning from the 20th of this month. President`s spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said that the invitation by NATO Secretary General for the NATO summit "was unconditional and not linked to the reopening of ground lines of communication for NATO or to any other issue".

President Zardari informed the NATO Secretary General that he would consider the invitation in the light of the guidelines of the Parliament and the advice of the government. The President said that a decision on the invitation will be communicated to NATO later.

However, official sources told PTI that the government had decided in principle to accept the invitation as part of efforts to reset relations with the US and NATO, which had plunged to a new low after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a cross-border NATO air strike in November last year. Following the attack, Pakistan closed all NATO supply routes and forced American personnel to vacate Shamsi airbase, considered a hub for CIA-operated drones.

Following a review of Pakistan-US ties, a joint session of parliament adopted a resolution that sought an unconditional apology from the US for the air strike. Several American leaders expressed regret for the air strike but the US administration refused to offer a formal apology, hampering efforts to put bilateral relations back on an even keel. During a news conference on Monday, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said the time had come for Pakistan to "move on" and repair relations with the US.

In the strongest sign yet that Pakistan was preparing to reopen the NATO supply routes, Khar said the government had made its point by closing the supplies for nearly six months in retaliation for the air strike. A formal announcement on the reopening of the supply routes and President Zardari`s participation is expected after crucial meetings of the country`s top civil and military leadership.

The Defence Committee of the Cabinet, Pakistan`s highest decision-making body on security issues, is scheduled to meet today while the federal cabinet will meet tomorrow. Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has convened a meeting of his Corps Commanders tomorrow to assess relations with the US and NATO, official sources said. The NATO Summit in Chicago is expected to focus on the endgame in Afghanistan.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Pakistan is being invited to the summit along with a number of non-NATO nations to attend teh two-day summit. About 60 countries and organisations are expected to attend the summit. "This meeting will underline the strong commitment of the international community to the people of Afghanistan and to its future…Pakistan has an important role to play in that future," Lungescu said.

In a related development, Oil Tankers Association chairman Yusuf Sherwani said an important announcement about the reopening of the supply routes was expected from Pakistan`s Interior Ministry. However, Leader of Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the main opposition PLM-N party is opposed to the reopening of the supply routes. "The opposition was not taken on board and we still believe the routes should not be opened," he told the media.