ISLAMABAD Pakistan has angrily rejected allegations from Afghan officials that its intelligence agency masterminded the assassination of Kabul's chief peace negotiator with the Taliban.
An investigative delegation established by President Hamid Karzai said evidence and a confession provided by a man involved in Burhanuddin Rabbani's killing on September 20 had revealed that the bomber was Pakistani and the assassination had been plotted in Pakistan.
"Instead of making such irresponsible statements, those in positions of authority in Kabul should seriously deliberate as to why all those Afghans who are favorably disposed toward peace and toward Pakistan are systematically being removed from the scene and killed," Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement.
"There is a need to take stock of the direction taken by Afghan Intelligence and security agencies."
Rabbani's killing derailed efforts to forge dialogue with the Taliban to end the 10-year war and raised fears of a dangerous widening of Afghanistan's ethnic rifts.
Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets of Kabul on Sunday to condemn recent shelling of border areas by Pakistan's army and accused the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency of involvement in Rabbani's killing. [nL3E7L2039]
In another sign of rising Afghan frustration with Islamabad, the peace council which Rabbani headed reiterated earlier comments by Karzai that negotiations should continue, but with Pakistan, rather than the Taliban, suggesting Islamabad was directing some militants from behind the scenes.
Afghan leaders have long questioned Islamabad's promises to help bring peace to their country. Pakistani intelligence is suspected of ties to militant groups in Afghanistan, especially the Haqqani network, one of the deadliest.
Pakistan sees the group as a strategic asset, a counterweight to the growing influence of rival India in Afghanistan, analysts say.
ISI chief Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha told Reuters last week that Pakistan never provided a single penny or bullet to the Haqqani network.
The network's leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, told the BBC in an interview broadcast on Monday his group was not linked to the ISI.
Pakistan has also came under sharp criticism from its ally the United States -- the source of billions of dollars in aid -- over its performance against militancy.
The top U.S. military officer has accused Pakistani intelligence of supporting an attack allegedly carried out by the Haqqani group, which is close to al Qaeda, on the U.S. embassy in Kabul on Sept 13.
In the face of Pakistani indignation, the White House and State Department appeared to quietly distance themselves from the remarks by Admiral Mike Mullen, who stepped down this week as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The United States wants Pakistan to crack down on the Haqqani network, which it believes is based in North Waziristan in the Afghan border, and other anti-American militants.
Pakistan says it has sacrificed more than any other country that joined the U.S.-led global campaign against militancy after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, losing thousands of soldiers and security forces.
It has been presenting that argument more vigorously since U.S. special forces found and killed Osama bin Laden in a secret raid in May in a Pakistani town, where he apparently had been living for years.
Analysts doubt Pakistan will launch an offensive against the Haqqanis, but might instead try to rein them in to avoid further friction with Washington.
"I think Pakistan will definitely at least try to give an impression and also make some efforts toward distancing itself from them so that it doesn't get embarrassed," said retired army general and analyst Talat Masood.
"I don't think they will launch a military operation, but they will make sure that they (the Haqqanis) don't create more problems for us."
Instead of escalating attacks on militants, Pakistan seems to be searching for other ways to create stability in the unruly tribal areas near the Afghan border that offer sanctuaries.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was quoted by Pakistani newspapers on Monday as saying the government was ready to talk peace with militants.
"We should give peace a chance in the first place by holding dialogue with militants," The Nation quoted him as saying.
The Express Tribune quoted him as saying: "If negotiations fail to work. The government will launch military operations in the tribal areas."
Previous government peace deals with militants provided the groups with space to impose what many Pakistanis say was a reign of terror designed to impose their view of Islam in areas they controlled.
(Additional reporting by reporters in Kabul and Washington; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel)