KABUL, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Pakistan is working feverishly to defray tensions over the fate of a U.S. official who killed two men in Pakistan in a case that threatens billions of dollars in U.S. aid and could further damage an already strained alliance, a Pakistani diplomatic source said.
The diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Pakistani officials in Washington are talking to officials from across the U.S. government in a bid to avoid a serious rupture, but said that American government had put at least some bilateral engagements on hold over the issue.
“This is going to be a big issue and the American side is taking it very seriously,” the source said. “The message from Washington to our government is very strong. We all need to do something about it or it will affect our relationship very badly.”
The Obama administration’s demands that U.S. consulate employee Raymond Davis, who is being held in Pakistan after shooting two Pakistanis in what he said was a robbery last month, be released is the latest thorn in the fraught relationship.
Washington and Islamabad are supposed to be working in concert to stamp out militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but ties are increasingly strained over U.S. complaints Pakistan is only selectively disrupting extremist activity that has killed U.S. and other NATO soldiers across the border.
The United States has said Davis is protected by diplomatic immunity but a court in the Pakistani city of Lahore barred the government from handing Davis over and said it would decide whether or not he could be tried.
The Pakistan diplomatic source said all sort of interactions could be affected, including U.S. assistance to Pakistan, one of the largest non-NATO recipients of American military aid.
“They tell us they’ll interact with us once this issue is resolved,” the source said. The controversy could even effect a $7.5-billion, five-year civilian aid package or official visits or meetings between the sometimes friends, sometimes foes.
‘MUST BE RESOLVED’
But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley pointed to several recent interactions in which U.S. officials stressed their interest in Davis’ fate, including a conversation on Monday between U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and another last week between Zardari and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“So we continue to have contacts with our Pakistani counterparts ... The Obama administration as well as members of Congress have repeatedly made clear at the highest levels that this matter must be resolved by the Pakistani government or it could impact other bilateral initiatives,” Crowley said.
If Davis were tried in a Pakistani court it would mark a worrying precedent for the U.S. government.
The case has made ripples in Pakistan, where supporters of the slain men and a third apparently killed by a U.S. vehicle after the shooting have held protests and burned U.S. flags, reflecting widespread anti-American sentiment in a country that Washington had hoped will become a bulwark against radical Islam.
On Sunday night, the widow of Mohammad Fahim, one of the men shot dead by Raymond Davis in Lahore, committed suicide by swallowing poison. She said she wanted “blood for blood” and that she believed that Davis would be freed without trial.
The Zardari government, weakened by political maneuvering, Islamist violence at home and a fragile economy, is keen to preserve the relationship but neither can it ignore the pressure at home not to be seen caving in to foreign powers.
Pakistani officials in Washington are reminding U.S. officials of this fact. “We have political compulsions as well,” the Pakistani source said. (Additional reporting by Christopher Allbritton in Islamabad and Andrew Quinn and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait and Miral Fahmy)