LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s said on Thursday it was “hard to believe” that no one in Pakistan’s government knew where al Qaeda leaders were hiding, striking a new tone on a trip where Washington’s credibility has come under attack.
Scores of al Qaeda leaders and their operatives, including Osama bin Laden, are believed to be in hiding in the rugged border territory that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan, but both countries routinely accuse the other of being the main sanctuary
“I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” she told a group of newspaper editors during a meeting in Lahore.
“Maybe they are not ‘get-at-able’. I don’t know,” she said.
Clinton’s pointed remark was the first public gripe on a trip aimed at turning around a U.S.-Pakistan relationship under serious strain, but bound in the struggle against religious extremism.
“I am more than willing to hear every complaint about the United States,” Clinton said, “”but this is a two way street.
“If we are going to have a mature partnership where we work together” then “there are issues that not just the United States but others have with your government and with your military security establishment.”
Clinton, who has sought to use her own personal outreach to overcome rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, earlier repeated her conviction that the two countries’ common interests far outweighed their differences.
“I am well aware that there is a trust deficit,” Clinton told students at a “townhall-style” meeting at Government College University in Lahore.
“My message is that’s not the way it should be. We cannot let a minority of people in both countries determine our relationship.”
Clinton’s arrival in Pakistan on Wednesday was overshadowed by a car bomb blast that ripped through a market in the city of Peshawar, killing more than 100 people, in one of the largest recent attacks by Islamic militants seeking to destabilize the nuclear-armed country.
Clinton urged Pakistan’s youth to stand firm against the forces of religious extremism, saying it threatened everything that both Americans and Pakistanis hold dear.
She carried the same message in her meetings with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and other high officials in Islamabad on Wednesday.
Clinton was due to meet Pakistan’s army and security chiefs on Thursday, where she was expected to discuss Pakistan’s latest military campaign against extremists in South Waziristan as well as the U.S.-led war against Taliban religious militants in neighboring Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have cast Clinton’s visit to Pakistan as a chance to counter anti-American broadsides from extremist religious leaders and to showcase Clinton’s personal affinity for a country she says she knows and loves deeply.
On Thursday, she toured the massive red sandstone Badshahi Mosque in central Lahore, extolling the cultural achievements of a country more often in the headlines for political and religious strife.
But the tense security situation in Pakistan was clear. Gunmen stood guard in the mosque minarets, while Lahore’s normally busy main streets were emptied and armed police kept bystanders penned back in narrow alleyways as Clinton’s motorcade sped past.
While acknowledging the many bumps in U.S.-Pakistan relations, Clinton nevertheless asked for understanding, patience and commitment, saying her own experience in deciding to join the Obama administration after running against Barack Obama for the presidency was instructive.
“What we have together is far greater than what divided us,” Clinton told the students, referring to her relations with Obama. “And that is what I feel about the United States and Pakistan.”
Editing by David Fox
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