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Pakistan reopens Nato supply lines after Hillary Clinton's apology

Routes to Afghanistan can be used again after US statement on killing of 24 soldiers in air strike

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

The desperately strained ties between Pakistan and the US eased yesterday as the Islamabad government agreed to re-open a critical Nato supply line to Afghanistan after Washington apologized for killing 24 of its soldiers in an airstrike last November near the Afghan border.

The deal was finalised in a phone call from Hillary Clinton to her Pakistani opposite number Hina Rabbani Khar, in which the Secretary of State expressed her regret at the incident. "We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military," Ms Clinton said in a statement on the conversation in which, she added, the two acknowledged "mistakes" that resulted in the loss of life.

Pakistan closed the supply line in retaliation for the botched airstrike, forcing the US to use a longer northern route running through Central Asia, costing an extra $100m a month. The first trucks are expected to use the re-opened route today (ed: Wednesday), but Pentagon officials said it would be days at least before shipments returned to former levels.

With the US committed to withdrawing all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, its ability to use the Pakistan transit route had become essential. But the agreement did not come easily for either side, each deeply suspicious of the other and obliged to take account of domestic political pressures.

The White House initially resisted anything smacking of an apology, fearful of playing into Republican charges that President Obama was failing to defend American interests, just as the 2012 election campaign moved towards its climax.

More fundamentally, many policymakers in Washington, pointing to the ties between elements of the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban, wonder aloud whether the country is to be counted a US ally at all.

Those doubts only intensified with the May 2011 US commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and the discovery that the al-Q'aida leader had been living for years in the hillstation town of Abbottabad, just two hours drive from Islamabad.

For Pakistan the same considerations apply, but in reverse. With anti-Americanism running high, the Islamabad governmment could not do anything that could be construed as a concession to the US – especially after the bin Laden operation, seen as a humiliating violation of the country's sovereignty. Even before that, public opinion was inflamed by the affair of Raymond Davis, the CIA private contractor who shot dead two men in Lahore, only to be released after the payment of $2.4m of 'blood money' by the US government.

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