By Andrew Quinn and Qasim Nauman
WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan and the United States reached a deal on Tuesday to reopen land routes that NATO uses to supply troops in Afghanistan, ending a seven-month crisis that damaged ties between the two countries and complicated the U.S.-led Afghan war effort.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a telephone call with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, apologized for a November NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November and prompted an infuriated Islamabad to slam the supply routes closed.
"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 in a statement following the conversation.
Khar, in turn, informed Clinton that Pakistan would reopen the supply routes and, in a major concession to the United States, would not follow through on threats to dramatically hike the transit fees.
The deal, which came after several previous attempts at negotiation had failed amid a dispute over a U.S. apology, opened the prospect of broader improvement in U.S.-Pakistan ties.
But even with this hurdle down, others remain. They include Pakistan's opposition to U.S. drone strikes on its territory, and Washington's allegations that Islamabad condones, or even assists, anti-American militants.
In her statement, Clinton said the supply lines agreement "is a tangible demonstration of Pakistan's support for a secure, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan and our shared objectives in the region." She added that the deal would allow the United States and its NATO partners to conduct their planned military drawdown from Afghanistan at a much lower cost.
U.S. officials said the United States was spending $100 million more a month to send supplies across a long alternate route overland across Central Asia and into Afghanistan.
PAKISTANI TALIBAN THREATENS CONVOYS
The Pakistani Taliban militant group immediately threatened to attack trucks that resume carrying supplies into Afghanistan, where most of the 128,000 NATO soldiers are due to withdraw by the end of 2014.
"We will attack NATO supplies all over Pakistan. We will not allow anyone to use Pakistani soil to transport supplies that will be used against the Afghan people," the group's spokesman told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said last month that Washington was losing patience with Pakistan because of the safe havens it offers to insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan, welcomed the news that the supply routes would reopen.
In an interview with Reuters, Panetta all but ruled out an apology to Pakistan over the NATO air strike.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf told senior government leaders on Tuesday that continued closure of the routes was harming Islamabad's relationship with Washington. Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman said the supply route deal could help to spur more cooperation between the two uneasy partners.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the announcement, saying it highlighted the important role Pakistan has in supporting a stable future for Afghanistan.
U.S.-Pakistan ties turned markedly worse after the U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory last year. Relations have been further poisoned by the U.S. drone strikes to target suspected militants and Washington's charge that Islamabad turns a blind eye to Haqqani network militants operating from within its borders.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is among a growing number of U.S. lawmakers who have voiced doubts about the Pakistan alliance, welcomed Tuesday's announcement, but said more needed to be done to put the relationship on the right footing. Continued...