ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan expects to re-open supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan, halted after a NATO cross-border air attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November, but will impose tariffs, a senior security official told Reuters Thursday.
The move suggests tensions with the United States and NATO have eased, but more progress is needed for the kind of cooperation necessary to fight militancy in the border region which U.S. President Barack Obama has called the world’s most dangerous place.
The official said the fees were designed to both express continued anger over the November 26 attack and raise funds for the state to fight homegrown Taliban militants blamed for many of the suicide bombings across the country.
“The tariffs will cover everything from the port to security to roads, which after all belong to Pakistan,” the security official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters.
No date was given for reopening the supply routes. Pakistan’s trade ministry was working out details of the tariffs, said the official.
The NATO attack plunged relations between troubled allies Pakistan and the United States to their lowest point in years.
Ties had already been severely strained by a secret raid by U.S. special forces that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May last year, embarrassing the military, which has ruled the country for over half of its 64-year history and sets security and foreign policy.
Asked if the re-opening was a sign that the crisis in relations could be tackled, the official said there was some way to go before normalcy was possible.
The two land routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan account for just under a third of all cargo that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ships into Afghanistan.
Aside from friction with the United States, Pakistan faces a slowing economy heavily dependent on foreign aid and is struggling with militant violence.
Exploratory peace talks between the homegrown Taliban, which is close to al Qaeda, and Islamabad, raised hopes that Pakistan’s leaders could eventually have one less major problem to deal with.
But the talks have made little headway, a senior security official told Reuters Thursday, after the Taliban flatly rejected a demand that it work through tribal elders to reach a deal whereby fighters approach authorities and lay down their arms.
“They felt it would be humiliating. The talks are not making progress,” the official said. “If they want to be included in the political system, that is what they will have to do.”
The Pakistani Taliban, allied with the Afghan Taliban movement fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, are entrenched in Pakistan’s unruly northwestern tribal areas, along the porous frontier with Afghanistan.
Past peace talks have merely given the group time and space to consolidate and launch fresh suicide attacks on army installations, police stations and crowded street markets.
Such a new wave of violence could further undermine a government under pressure from the Supreme Court and the military.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court Thursday adjourned a contempt hearing for Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in a case that could push him from office and imperil hopes that the longest-running civilian administration in the country’s coup-marred history can complete a five-year term.
Gilani was in court to explain why he should not be charged with contempt for failing to re-open old corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The government maintains Zardari has presidential immunity.
“It is my conviction that he (Zardari) has complete immunity inside and outside the country,” Gilani told the court.
The prime minister, however, appeared not to have convinced some judges.
“On the next date, let’s hear you convince us the issue is of the president’s immunity,” said Justice Sarmad Osmani, a member of the seven-panel bench. “Let’s grab the bull by its horns.”
While the immediate battle is about Gilani, the larger political crisis is about Zardari — who has had his own run-ins with the chief justice — and the fate of his government which is also increasingly at loggerheads with the military.
Tensions between the civilian leadership and the army, at their worst since a 1999 coup, were sparked by a mysterious memo last year that sought U.S. help in reining in the generals.
Additional reporting by Qasim Nauman, Serena Chaudhry and Rebecca Conway in ISLAMABAD, and Faisal Aziz and Sahar Ahmed in KARACHI; Editing by Ed Lane