Pakistan seeks to ease rift over U.S. prisoner

ISLAMABAD Sat Feb 12, 2011 2:25pm EST

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan warned Saturday it would be "extremely counter-productive" if ties with the United States were to be harmed by the case of an American held in a Pakistani jail and accused of murder.

Despite the apparent effort to defuse a crisis between the two long-time allies over the arrest, the United States went ahead and postponed a meeting of Pakistani, Afghan and U.S. high-level officials in Washington scheduled for this month.

The arrest of Raymond Davis, a U.S. consular employee who shot dead two Pakistani men last month in Lahore in what he said was self defense, has triggered a diplomatic row between Washington and Islamabad.

The issue has become a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, which the United States counts as an important, if unreliable, ally in its war against militants that launch attacks against its soldiers in Afghanistan.

"Our effort, and I must say emphatically, is that this incident in Lahore is not blown out of proportion," Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir told reporters.

"It will be extremely counterproductive if one incident or one person ... destroys a relationship of 60 years. It is simply unthinkable."

The United States is piling pressure on Pakistan to immediately release Davis, saying his arrest was a violation of international conventions because he has diplomatic immunity.

Pakistan says the matter will be decided by its courts.

Pakistan has detained Davis on remand since the incident on January 27, infuriating the United States.

A court in Lahore Friday extended his arrest for 14 more days, threatening to prolong a row that has put many high-level dealings on hold, including official visits to Pakistan.

The controversy could also threaten U.S. assistance to cash-strapped Pakistan, one of the largest non-NATO recipients of American military said.

The trilateral meetings have been held periodically in a bid to foster stability in Afghanistan, where around 100,000 U.S. troops are fighting Taliban militants, and in Pakistan, where a fragile government battles an insurgency of its own.

"In light of the political changes in Pakistan and after discussions with Afghan and Pakistani officials in Washington, it was agreed to postpone the trilateral meeting," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement.

Pakistan valued its ties with the United States and "we hope nothing is said or done that is detrimental to this relationship," Bashir said.

Pakistani officials also face the task of trying to keep a lid on public anger over the killing of the two men.

Islamist political parties, which do not win many votes in elections but have the ability to whip up protests, are often quick to seize on such issues to further their cause.

Supporters of the slain men have held protests and burned U.S. flags.

In addition to the two men shot and killed by Davis, a third man was killed when a vehicle from the U.S. consulate, apparently en route to rescue Davis, struck and killed a passer-by.

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Jon Hemming)

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