Pakistan boycotts talks over NATO strike

Pakistan has decided to boycott a key international conference on Afghanistan next month, widening its protest over lethal cross-border NATO strikes and exacerbating a deep crisis in US ties.

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The Pakistani cabinet took the decision a week before the December 5 talks in the German city of Bonn, leaving open the possibility it could yet reverse the decision should Islamabad win concessions in the interim.

“Pakistan looks forward to the success of this conference but in view of the developments and prevailing circumstances has decided not to participate in the conference,” a government statement said on Tuesday.

The cabinet branded “unilateral action” such as Saturday’s NATO strike and the May 2 US killing of Osama bin Laden, which brought the US relationship to its lowest level in years, “unacceptable”, the prime minister’s office said.

It reiterated condemnation of the NATO air strike as “an assault on the sovereignty of Pakistan”.

CLOSING THE BORDER

Pakistan has already closed the Afghan border to NATO convoys, a lifeline for 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, ordered American personnel to vacate an air base reportedly used by CIA drones and ordered a review of the alliance.

The Afghan and German governments reacted with disappointment to the boycott, with President Hamid Karzai calling Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to urge him to reconsider.

Although international conferences on Afghanistan are criticised for lacking substance, a Pakistani snub would be symbolic given how closely Islamabad is linked to the conflict and any eventual resolution.

MERKEL SEEKS PAKISTANI ATTENDANCE

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would try to convince Pakistan to attend the talks, bringing together foreign ministers from around 100 countries to discuss commitments to Afghanistan after NATO combat troops leave in 2014.

“There is now a very, very good chance for a possible political process. On the one hand I can understand (the boycott) but on the other, we will see what still can be done,” she told reporters in Berlin.

Afghanistan, which often has troubled relations with Pakistan, said Islamabad had an “important” role to play at the conference.

Karzai’s deputy spokesman Siamak Herawi said the palace was “optimistic” they would attend, but Gilani’s office gave no hint of an official rethink.

“How could a country whose own sovereignty and territorial integrity was violated from Afghan soil play such a constructive role?” said a statement from his office following a telephone call with Karzai.

Pakistani analysts interpreted the planned boycott as brinkmanship.

“It is a way to build pressure to make the United States understand that Pakistan takes this very seriously,” political analyst Hasan Askari said.

TIES WEAKENED

US-Pakistan ties have been in free fall since a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January. Saturday’s attack raises questions about the extent to which the two allies can cooperate with each other.

US General Martin Dempsey, the top US military officer, told Britain’s ITV News that Pakistani-US relations were “on about as rocky a road” as ever.

“It’s had its rocky moments in the past. This one certainly is more serious than any I’ve been involved with and I’ve been working issues with Pakistan for the last 10 years,” he told the network.

The US military has given investigators until December 23 to probe the attack, threatening to prolong significantly Pakistan’s blockade, putting Brigadier General Stephen Clark in charge.

The team, to include a NATO representative, is yet to arrive in Afghanistan but an initial military assessment team has already been to the border.

Islamabad insists that the air strike was unprovoked, but Afghan and Western officials have reportedly accused Pakistani forces of firing first.

Angry protests over the NATO attack pushed into a fourth day, with 150-200 people demonstrating in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, setting fire to an American flag and an effigy of NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

In the central city of Multan, 250-300 students chanted slogans against NATO raids.