ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Gunmen in Pakistan set fire to up to 40 supply trucks for NATO troops in two raids on Wednesday, police said, the latest in a series of assaults on the logistical backbone of the war in Afghanistan.
The attacks were launched on the same day the United States apologized to Pakistan for a NATO cross-border incursion in which U.S. helicopters killed two Pakistani soldiers.
U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson called the killings a terrible accident.
A U.S. embassy statement said a joint investigation showed U.S. helicopters had mistaken the soldiers for insurgents they had been pursuing. Pakistani officials were not immediately available to say whether they accepted the findings.
The September 30 helicopter strike was the most serious of recent cross-border incidents involving NATO-led forces fighting in Afghanistan, which have stoked tensions with neighboring Pakistan.
Pakistan shut a vital supply route for coalition troops in Afghanistan after the strike, officially citing security reasons.
Gunmen torched 20 fuel tankers in the first attack on Wednesday near the southwestern city of Quetta. The second attack was in the northwest.
“There are 15 to 20 tankers. A fire is still raging. No one can come close to them for now. We don’t know about casualties,” Ali Anan Qamar, a top administration official in the northwestern city of Nowshera told Reuters by telephone.
In the earlier attack near Quetta, gunmen opened fire on the trucks and torched them, killing a driver.
U.S. pressure on Islamabad to eliminate militants in its northwest tribal areas, who cross the border to attack Western troops in Afghanistan, is also a source of friction.
An alleged al Qaeda plot to attack European targets has put the Pakistani government’s performance against militants under scrutiny again, while the country reels from summer floods that left over 10 million homeless and heavily damaged the economy.
European and American counter-terrorism officials have said that concerns about a group of about 100 German Islamists who had travelled between Germany and the tribal border areas of Pakistan contributed to the latest security alert in Europe.
A British man killed by an air strike in Pakistan had ties with the would-be Times Square bomber, a Pakistani intelligence official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
He said the Briton, Abdul Jabbar, had also been in the process of setting up a branch for the Taliban in Britain.
“He had some links to Faisal Shahzad but the nature of the ties are not clear,” the official said, referring to the Pakistani-born U.S. citizen sentenced to life in prison in the United States Tuesday for trying to set off a car bomb in New York’s busy Times Square.
Those links are likely to fuel concerns that al Qaeda and its allies, such as Pakistan’s Taliban, which trained Shahzad, are becoming an increasing threat to Western nations.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in early September vowed to launch attacks in the U.S. and Europe “very soon.” It had made previously similar threats but Shahzad’s plot was the closest it has come to success.
Before his sentencing, Shahzad denounced the presence of U.S. and NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, described himself as the “first droplet of the flood that will follow” and mentioned al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The TTP claimed responsibility for most of the latest attacks hitting dozens of NATO supply trucks.
The U.S. has also ramped up pilotless drone aircraft strikes against militant targets within Pakistan’s borders, further deepening concern of a more aggressive U.S. war strategy.
Two missiles from a suspected U.S. drone Wednesday struck a house in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, killing six militants, local intelligence officials said. Hours later another drone strike killed 3 militants in a nearby town.
There was no immediate verification of either incident.
The bulk of supplies for foreign forces in Afghanistan moves through Pakistan, which is itself battling a Taliban insurgency.
Tensions could deepen if Washington demands more cooperation from Pakistan before a gradual July 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Kamran Haider; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Charles Dick)
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