Pakistan returns U.S. helicopter from bin Laden raid

WASHINGTON Tue May 24, 2011 5:59pm EDT

Part of a damaged helicopter is seen lying near the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

Part of a damaged helicopter is seen lying near the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, May 2, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pakistan has returned to the United States wreckage of a U.S. helicopter destroyed during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a Pentagon official told Reuters on Tuesday, but the gesture was expected to do little to improve strained ties.

The U.S. Navy SEAL team that stormed bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2 blew up the Black Hawk helicopter after it was damaged during a hard landing. It had stealth features and they wanted to keep sensitive U.S. technology out of enemy hands, U.S. officials have said.

But bits of the helicopter, including the tail section, remained behind and the United States demanded that Pakistan return them to U.S. custody.

"It (the wreckage) was returned over the weekend and is now back in the United States," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.

The raid on the compound badly damaged U.S.-Pakistan relations, and nagging questions remain in Washington about how bin Laden managed to go unnoticed for years in the garrison town of Abbottabad, only about 30 miles from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. Some U.S. officials speculate he must have had support.

In turn, Pakistan has branded the raid a violation of its sovereignty, since Islamabad was not informed about the U.S. operation until it was over. Pakistan's parliament has threatened to cut supply lines to U.S. forces in Afghanistan if there are more military incursions.

Senator John Kerry, on a trip to Islamabad on May 16, described a Pakistani pledge to return the helicopter's wreckage as one step needed to rebuild trust between the two countries.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

But Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who has advised President Barack Obama on policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, said returning the helicopter fell far short of what it would take to mend frayed ties.

"It's too little, too late to change the downward spiral in U.S.-Pakistani relations," Riedel said.

Arturo Munoz, another former CIA official now at the RAND Corporation, said failure to return the craft would have been seen as "an expression of hostility on their part."

Even before bin Laden's death, bilateral ties had reached a low point over Pakistan's arrest of a CIA contractor and mounting U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan's western regions.

The government of President Asif Ali Zardari, along with Pakistan's even more powerful military leaders, has denied any prior knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts.

But some U.S. lawmakers are calling for a radical shift in U.S. policy on Pakistan, as officials brace themselves for possible revelations about Pakistani complicity in data seized from bin Laden's compound.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged the "trust deficit" between the two countries. But he also said Pakistan was too important to walk away from.

"Pakistan is very important, not just because of Afghanistan but because of its nuclear weapons and because of the importance of stability in the subcontinent," Gates told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank.

"So we need to keep working at this."

(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, David Alexander and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao)

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