NATO fuel tankers are torched in Pakistan

Suspected militants in southern Pakistan set ablaze more than two dozen tankers carrying fuel for foreign troops in Afghanistan on Friday highlighting the vulnerability of the US-led mission a day after Pakistan closed a major border crossing.
By Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 1, 2010; 8:33 PM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - The United States and Pakistan have tentatively agreed to conduct a joint investigation of a cross-border U.S. airstrike that killed three Pakistani soldiers Thursday, officials from both countries said.

Discussions continued as armed men torched dozens of NATO fuel tankers in southern Pakistan on Friday, police said, and coalition supply convoys remained blocked at Torkham, the main Pakistani entry point to Afghanistan, for a second day. Pakistan closed the border post, near Peshawar in the northern part of the country, in response to what it said were illegal U.S. air incursions from Afghanistan.

Police in the town of Shikarpur said 10 "extremists" shot and set fire to at least 30 NATO trucks at a filling station, destroying the vehicles but injuring no one.

In the southwestern province of Baluchistan, a truck driver and his assistant were burned to death in a second attack when militants stopped a NATO fuel tanker, bound for a separate border crossing near the city of Quetta, and opened fire on it, according to a Quetta-based official of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

In Washington, Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, expressed regret over the Thursday incident during a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council. "I do not think it will change the fundamentals of the relationship" between the United States and Pakistan, he said.

Holbrooke said it was "inconceivable" that the border closure "would continue for more than a short period." Other officials said they expected the border to reopen within 48 to 72 hours. Non-NATO vehicles were allowed to pass through Torkham, a NATO spokesman said, and the closing had had no immediate impact on military operations.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, telephoned Pakistan's military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, Friday to discuss the incursion, as the administration moved to calm a potentially critical breach with a key partner in the Afghanistan war. Officials who discussed the sensitive negotiations on the condition of anonymity said that a joint investigation could help soothe feelings on both sides.

Pakistan has said that three of six Frontier Corps soldiers manning a mountaintop post near Pakistan's western border were killed when helicopters launched missiles at them after the soldiers fired their rifles to warn that the aircraft were on the Pakistan side. Pakistan has lodged diplomatic protests and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani told Parliament on Friday that the government "will consider other options if there is interference in the sovereignty of our country."

Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, said Friday that military officials have not yet confirmed that Pakistani border troops were killed in the NATO airstrike. Dorrian had previously said that U.S. helicopters had crossed the border but said they had fired on insurgents who were preparing a mortar attack against troops from the U.S.-led coalition on the other side.

U.S. military officials said it was not clear to them whether the same helicopters were involved in both attacks or whether they were separate incidents. A Pentagon spokesman Thursday suggested the aircraft was within its rights to fire after being fired on.

Pakistani military officials have countered that the soldiers were poorly armed and could never have threatened the helicopters with their rifles. The officials have also dismissed U.S. suggestions that the pilots may not have known where the border or the Pakistani military outpost was, saying that detailed maps and high-technology coordination and surveillance established after a similar incident in 2008 would make such confusion impossible.

The deaths of the Pakistani soldiers came amid a sharp escalation in attacks against insurgent strongholds in Pakistan by unmanned CIA drones. Those attacks are highly unpopular in Pakistan, where the government only privately acquiesces to them. U.S. officials said there is also a private agreement that U.S. aircraft can enter Pakistani airspace, within a narrow band along the border, if acting in self-defense against cross-border attacks. Pakistan denies such agreement exists.

Meanwhile, in response to reports of political upheaval in Pakistan, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the United States considers Pakistan a "key ally" and believes that "the government of Pakistan is committed to democracy and to the preservation of civilian leadership."

Adding to the complexity of Pakistan's political situation, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and served as president until elections in 2008, announced in London that he was re-entering Pakistani politics at the head of a newly formed party.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Correspondent Ernesto Londono in Kabul and special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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