Fury in Pakistan as Nato strike kills 24

FURY spread in Pakistan yesterday over a Nato cross-border air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and could undermine the US effort to wind up the war in Afghanistan.

Hundreds of trucks carrying supplies to US-led troops in Afghanistan backed up at Pakistani border crossings yesterday, leaving them vulnerable to attack a day after Islamabad closed the frontier in retaliation for coalition airstrikes.

As the Pakistan army chief attended the funerals of the victims, the US sought to minimise the fallout.

Pakistan also ordered the US to vacate an air base used by American drones to target al-Qaida and Taliban militants in the country’s tribal region along the Afghan border.

Pakistan still relies on billions of dollars in US military and civilian aid, and the US needs Islamabad’s help to push Afghan insurgents to engage in peace talks.

But tensions could rise further if militants unleash attacks against the stranded trucks ferrying Nato supplies to Afghanistan.

Suspected militants des-troyed about 150 trucks and injured drivers and police a year ago after Pakistan closed one of its Afghan border crossings to Nato supplies for 10 days in retaliation for a US helicopter attack that accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers.

The situation could be worse this time because Pakistan, outraged at the alleged Nato attack before dawn on Saturday, has closed both its crossings.

Nearly 300 trucks carrying coalition supplies are backed up at Torkham in the north-west Khyber tribal area and Chaman in south-western Baluchistan province. Last year, Pakistan only closed Torkham.

“We are worried,” said driver Saeed Khan, speaking from the border terminal in Torkham. “This area is always vulnerable to attacks. Sometimes rockets are lobbed at us. Sometimes we are targeted by bombs.”

Khan and hundreds of other drivers and their assistants barely slept on Saturday night because they were worried about potential attacks, he said.

Some drivers said Pakistan had sent paramilitary troops to protect their convoys since the closures, but others were left without any additional protection. Even those who did receive troops did not feel safe.

“If there is an attack, what can five or six troops do? Nothing,” said Niamatullah Khan, a fuel truck driver parked with 35 other vehicles at a restaurant 200km from Chaman.

Nato ships nearly 50% of its non-lethal supplies to its troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan. The trucks are periodically targeted by suspected militants on the way, and their drivers are sometimes killed. Nato said these attacks do not greatly impact its ability to keep its troops supplied.

An official closely involved with the Afghan war said there will likely be no immediate negative effect from Pakistan’s decision to close its border crossings.

Nato has built up a large stockpile of military and other supplies that could enable operations to continue for several months.

Pakistan also gave the US 15 days to vacate Shamsi air base in Baluchistan. The US uses the base to service drones when they cannot return to their Afghan bases due to bad weather or mechanical difficulty.

Afghan officials said yesterday that the call was made after Afghan soldiers came under fire.

A spokesman for Nato forces said it was “highly likely” that the airstrikes caused Pakistani casualties.

US officials have expressed their sympathies over the incident and promised to work closely with Pakistan as Nato carries out its investigation.

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