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Pakistan reopens border to NATO supply trucks

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Gunmen armed with a rocket torched 29 NATO oil tankers in southern Pakistan on Saturday, the latest attack on the supply line for international troops in Afghanistan since a key border crossing was closed in a dispute with the U.S.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 6:27 PM

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan has reopened an important border pass to NATO convoys, 10 days after enacting a blockade that strained relations with the United States and was followed by violent attacks on supply trucks stranded inside Pakistan.

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In a brief statement issued Saturday by the foreign ministry, Pakistan said it had lifted the closure of the Torkham border crossing with immediate effect, after "assessing the security situation." Authorities on both sides of the frontier with Afghanistan were coordinating to "ensure smooth resumption of the supply traffic," the statement said.

The announcement represented the end of a standoff that had heightened tensions between Pakistan and the United States, and a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Rick Snelsire, said American officials were "pleased by the development."

NATO trucks are unlikely to start rolling across the border again until Monday, however, because the crossing point is closed on Sundays. As of Saturday evening, border officials and drivers at Torkham said they had not received orders about the reopening. A backlog of about 200 trucks and tankers remained idled at the pass, said Shakirullah Afridi, president of the Khyber Transport Association.

Pakistan closed the pass to NATO supply trucks in protest of an airstrike by two American assault helicopters that killed or wounded six Pakistani soldiers. The incident, which came after other controversial NATO incursions into Pakistani airspace, drew stern rebuke from Pakistan, a U.S. ally, and stoked outrage among the strongly anti-American Pakistani public.

A cross-border investigation determined that the helicopter operators struck after concluding that the soldiers - who had fired warning shots from their rifles - were insurgents. That led to apologies from the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and top NATO and U.S. officials.

The blockade highlighted NATO's dependence on Pakistan, through which about 50 percent of nonlethal supplies for the Afghan war travel, according to a U.S. military official in Afghanistan.

After arriving at the southern port city of Karachi, about half of those goods are trucked north toward the Khyber Pass, where they cross into Afghanistan at Torkham. The other 25 percent of supplies go through a second Pakistani border point, at the city of Chaman, which remained open.

Gary Younger, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, said Saturday that fuel was not running low, despite the border closure. "There's quite a bit of redundancy and flexibility in the system, and we have contingency plans in place to deal with interruptions to the normal flow of supplies," he said.

But as the blockade continued, militants sought to exploit the anger over the airstrike by setting fire to or shooting at several convoys traveling toward Chaman or parked elsewhere in Pakistan. The latest attack occurred early Saturday, when militants torched nearly 30 trucks in southwestern Pakistan.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, saying they were carried out to "avenge" the NATO airstrike and CIA drone missiles in Pakistan's lawless tribal region.

Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul and special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.



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