Pak ends blockade of NATO supply lines to Afghan

Islamabad/Washington: Pakistan on Tuesday ended a seven-month-old blockade of crucial supply routes to Afghanistan after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologised for a cross-border NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November last year.

A meeting of Pakistan`s highest decision-making body on security issues chaired by Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and attended by army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani decided to reopen the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs) to Afghanistan.

The Defence Committee of the Cabinet further decided that "Pakistan will continue not to charge any transit fee" on supplies transported to foreign troops in Afghanistan through its territory. This was done "to emphasise the point that the issue in the first place was not of the financial gains but of the principle of sovereignty," an official statement said.

"Money was not the consideration (in reopening the NATO supply lines)," Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters after the meeting of the DCC that continued for over three hours.

Pakistan did not equate its dignity with money and that was why the government had insisted on an apology from the US and not financial gains, he said.

Earlier, Clinton in a telephonic conversation with her Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar reiterated America`s "deepest regrets" for the NATO attack on November 26 last year, which had triggered a major diplomatic rift between the two countries.

"I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again," Clinton said.

Islamabad had long demanded that US must apologise for the air raid that killed 24 Pakistani army personnel before it would re-open the supply routes to Afghanistan.

Putting a positive spin on the resolution of the standoff between Pakistan and the US on the supply lines, Kaira said the government, military and people of Pakistan had got a world power to agree that harm had been done to Pakistan and to offer an apology.

Addressing the meeting of the DCC, Prime Minister Ashraf said: "The continued closure of the supply lines not only impinges on our relationship with the US, but also on our relations with the 49 other member states of NATO (and) ISAF."

The meeting was also attended by Deputy Prime Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Defence Minister Naveed Qamar, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Chairman Gen Khalid Shameem Wynne, air force chief Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt and ISI chief Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam.

The official statement said the DCC had decided to reopen the supply lines through Pakistani territory to "facilitate the transition and subsequent transformation process" in Afghanistan. It said NATO would not be allowed to transport any lethal cargo into Afghanistan "except equipment for Afghan national security forces essential for ensuring peace and stability".

The statement referred to continuing differences between Pakistan and the US on the CIA`s drone campaign against militants in Pakistan`s tribal belt and said the DCC had decided to "continue to engage the US on counter-terrorism cooperation and counter-terrorism tools that are in line with the international law and practice".

Kaira said Pakistan had adopted a clear stand that drone strikes were counter-productive to the war on terror. "We will engage the US administration and convince them the drone strikes are an attack on our sovereignty, and they should be ended. We have to find a better way," he said.

Pakistan, he said, was a victim of terrorism and will continue to work with the world community to counter this menace.

The reopening of the NATO supply lines was "not a victory for Pakistan or a defeat for anyone", Kaira said. Following the NATO air strike last year, Pakistan forced American personnel to vacate Shamsi airbase, considered a hub for CIA-operated drones, and shut down the supply lines.

The air strike took bilateral relations to a new low as it came in the wake of a string of crises, including the killing of Osama bin Laden and the gunning down of two Pakistani men by a CIA contractor last year.

Clinton, in her talk with Khar, described Pakistan`s decision to open the supply route as a "tangible demonstration" of its "support for a secure, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan and our shared objectives in the region."

She said the move will also help the US and the International Security Assistance Force to conduct the planned drawdown at a much lower cost.

Khar informed Clinton that consistent with current practice, no lethal equipment will transit the GLOC into Afghanistan except for equipping the Afghan National Security Forces.

Clinton said US respects Pakistan`s sovereignty and is "committed to working together in pursuit of shared objectives on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect." She also discussed with Khar the importance of taking coordinated action against terrorists who threaten Pakistan, the US, and the region, of supporting Afghanistan`s security, stability, and efforts towards reconciliation.