ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan is unlikely to re-open supply routes to NATO troops in Afghanistan unless the United States offers a politically acceptable formula in talks on ending a six-month standoff on the issue, a Pakistani official said on Thursday.
The official said the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)had to be politically savvy, taking into account widespread anti-American sentiment in the country ahead of general elections due by early next year.
“It is not fair for any country to expect any decisions that could be politically harmful ahead of elections,” the official, who is familiar with the negotiations, told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The United States has been pushing Pakistan to re-open supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan in difficult talks that show no signs of a breakthrough any time soon.
Pakistan closed the routes, seen as vital to the planned withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2014, in protest against last November’s killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air attack along the Afghan border.
Higher transit fees are the most difficult issue in Pakistan’s talks in the negotiations, said the official.
Pakistan was demanding a substantially higher fee than the current $250 per container or per fuel truck that crosses its borders and it was not clear when a deal was possible, he said, without elaborating. “It could be tomorrow or it could be in two months,” said the official.
U.S. frustrations with Pakistan deepened on Wednesday after Pakistani authorities sentenced a doctor accused of helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in jail on charges of treason.
Shakil Afridi was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign, in which he collected DNA samples, that is believed to have helped the American intelligence agency track down bin Laden in a Pakistani town.
The al Qaeda leader was killed in a unilateral U.S. special forces raid in the town of Abbottabad in May last year that heavily damaged ties with Washington, a source of billions of dollars in aid.
Bin Laden’s long presence in Pakistan — he was believed to have stayed there for years — despite the worldwide manhunt for him raised suspicions in Washington that Pakistani intelligence officials may have given him shelter.
Pakistani officials deny this and say an intelligence gap enabled bin Laden to live here undetected.
No one has yet been charged for helping the al Qaeda leader take refuge in Pakistan. A government commission tasked with investigating how he managed to evade capture by Pakistani authorities for so long is widely accused of being ineffective.
U.S. officials and lawmakers said Afridi deserved only praise, not a 33-year jail sentence.
Two senior U.S. senators called the ruling “shocking and outrageous” and urged Islamabad to pardon and release the doctor immediately.
But a Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman said the United States should respect the court’s decision.
“I think as far as the case of Mr. Afridi is concerned, it was in accordance with Pakistani laws and by the Pakistani courts, and we need to respect each other’s legal processes,” Moazzam Ali Khan told reporters.
Aside from the talks on NATO supply routes, Pakistan and the United States have been trying to patch up a serious of other differences in their ties since the raid that killed bin Laden, which humiliated Pakistan’s powerful military.
Islamabad is sticking to demands for an American apology for the Pakistani soldiers killed in the air attack on the border, but progress has been made on the issue, said the Pakistani official.
“We need some sort of apology,” he said.
Pakistan also wants an end to U.S. drone strikes on Islamist militants on its territory.
Attacks by unmanned drone aircraft, which U.S. officials say are highly effective against militants, fuel anti-American sentiment in Pakistan because they are seen as violations of sovereignty and inflict civilian casualties.
After conducting a review of ties with Washington last month, parliament called on the government to demand an end to drone strikes.
That, the official said, implies that Pakistan must itself expel foreign militants from its soil, including Uzbeks, Arabs and members of the Afghan Haqqani network, one of the most feared groups fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Some Pakistani officials, and Haqqani leaders, have said the group no longer operates in Pakistan, contradicting U.S. assertions that it operates from sanctuaries in Pakistan’s unruly North Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border.
A U.S. drone strike on suspected Islamist militants in the area on Thursday killed 10 people, Pakistani intelligence officials said, an attack likely to raise tensions in the standoff with Washington over NATO supply routes.
The pilotless drone aircraft attacked a compound in a village in North Waziristan, a day after a similar attack killed four suspected militants in the same region.
“The drone fired two missiles at the compound. We believe it was being used by militants,” one of the Pakistani officials said.
The United States has been urging Pakistan to mount an offensive in North Waziristan to pursue Haqqani militants.
Pakistan has said its military is stretched fighting homegrown Taliban militants, and some analysts doubt the army could defeat the group.
A full-fledged assault in North Waziristan looks more unlikely than ever, as a result of troubled ties between Washington and Islamabad, and Pakistan’s PPP-led government may want to put on a brave face in the supply route talks.
The administration is already deeply unpopular, with public frustrations growing over chronic power cuts, widespread poverty, unemployment and official corruption.
Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR, Haji Mujtaba in MIRANSHAH and Rebecca Conway in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan