The United States' top military commander has accused Pakistan's government of "sanctioning" the slaying of a journalist whose hard-hitting reports included allegations that the Pakistani intelligence services had been infiltrated by Islamic militants.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted by "The New York Times"
as having told journalists at a Pentagon briefing on July 7 that the kidnapping and torture death of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad "was sanctioned by the government."
Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani was quoted by the same paper as saying that "any evidence" that the Americans have "should be shared" with a Pakistani commission appointed to investigate the death.
Pakistani Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said Mullen's comments would deal a "big blow" to joint efforts in the war against terrorism.
"It's extremely irresponsible," she said. "The statement by Mike Mullen about Pakistan is extremely irresponsible and unfortunate. This statement will create problems and difficulties for the bilateral relations between Pakistan and America."
Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad had reported of Islamic extremist infiltration of Pakistan's intelligence services. (undated)
Shahzad disappeared from Islamabad on May 29 after writing a report about Al-Qaeda's alleged infiltration of Pakistan's navy. His body was found two days later, bearing what police said were signs of torture.
Asked on July 7 about media reports that the Pakistani government approved the reporter's killing, Mullen said: "I have not seen anything that would disabuse that report that the government knew about this." "It was sanctioned by the government," he added.
However, he said he did not have a "string of evidence" linking the death to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military's premier intelligence agency.
Speaking at a Pentagon Press Association luncheon in Washington, the admiral also suggested other reporters had suffered a similar fate in the past.
Mullen said the episode raised worrying questions about the country's current course: "It's not a way to move ahead. It's a way to continue to, quite frankly, spiral in the wrong direction."
"The New York Times" reported recently
that Obama administration officials suspected the ISI had ordered Shahzad's killing. They quoted unnamed U.S. officials who cited unspecified intelligence indicating the ISI wanted to silence Shahzad.
Another military official was quoted by the same paper as declining to say whether Mullen thought foreknowledge of the killing extended as high as President Asif Ali Zardari or Pakistan Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Pakistani Information Minister Awan told a news conference that Mullen's comments would "create problems and difficulties in the bilateral ties." She said they would "impact our joint efforts in [the] war against terrorism," without elaborating.
The government earlier said Islamabad had set up an independent commission to probe the killing and that Mullen's statement would not help the investigation.
"Whatever is published in U.S. media, the judicial commission needs evidence," Pervez Shaukat, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and a member of the investigating commission, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.
"You know that the judicial commission circulated and advertised that any one having evidence about Saleem Shahzad, they should bring it before the judicial commission."
The ISI has denied as "baseless" allegations that it was involved in the murder of Shahzad, who worked for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online.
The 40-year-old Shahzad was a well-known journalist who made a career writing about Islamist militant networks operating in Pakistan and investigating the alleged ties between militants and the ISI.
His abduction came shortly after he had written an investigative piece on the deadly insurgent attack on a naval base in Karachi on May 22-23, which took 16 hours to contain and resulted in the deaths of at least 10 military personnel and four militants. In his report, he alleged that the attack stemmed from a breakdown in secret negotiations between the navy and Al-Qaeda.
Shahzad warned that he had received threats because of his report, with suspicions turning toward the ISI agency.
U.S.-Pakistan Relationship 'Under Pressure'
Mullen acknowledged the U.S. relationship with Pakistan was "under extraordinary pressure," confirming that the U.S. military presence in Pakistan had been dramatically scaled back at Islamabad's request.
But Mullen insisted that Washington was "committed to sustaining that relationship."
The Karachi attack came after the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, which led to questions of how the Al-Qaeda leader could find a safe haven for years alongside Pakistan's elite military training academy, and how the U.S. raid could be successfully carried out unbeknownst to the armed forces.
Mullen said that even before the bin Laden raid ties had become strained, particularly over the arrest of a CIA contractor in Pakistan who was charged with double murder before eventually being released.
Despite growing frustration over Pakistan's failure to crack down on militant sanctuaries near the Afghan border, Mullen said it would be a "disaster" to cut off financial aid to Islamabad, as some U.S. lawmakers have urged.
with agency reports