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Pakistani Cabinet Backs Agreement On Supply Routes


Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
Pakistan's cabinet has ordered officials to finalize an agreement on reopening a vital supply route for NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

At a meeting on May 16, however, the cabinet stopped short of announcing that the land route will be reopened, and set no deadline for concluding negotiations.

The cabinet also backed President Asif Ali Zardari attending talks on the future of Afghanistan at a NATO summit in Chicago.

NATO invited Zardari to the May 20-21 summit amid signs that the Pakistani government is ready to reopen the supply route.

Pakistan closed its border to NATO six months ago in retaliation for a NATO air strike which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The United States expressed regret over the deaths, but refused to apologize.

The incident further deteriorated already frayed U.S.-Pakistani relations.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said progress had been made on ending the blockade.

"We are close," Nuland said. "The negotiators have a number of issues that need to be finished, so there's a sense that getting it finished is now a timely thing to do."

'A Delicate Phase'

Referring to the difficult state of ties with Washington, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told cabinet ministers on May 16 that Pakistan should not make "emotional decisions, which do not augur well for us in the long run."

He said relations with NATO and the United States were at "a delicate phase."

Gilani also said that Pakistan needs to make decisions that could be "critical" for its "strategic importance" in the region and its national interest.

Analysts say Pakistan is hoping that attendance at the Chicago talks will boost its leverage over the future of Afghanistan as NATO countries prepare to pull their troops out of the country by 2014.

Islamabad boycotted the last major talks on Afghanistan, held in the German city of Bonn in December.

Some experts say that reopening the NATO supply routes, however, could spark a domestic backlash.

Anti-American sentiment runs high in Pakistan, fueled by the killing in a U.S. raid of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year in Abbottabad, as well as continuing U.S. drone attacks in the border region with Afghanistan.

The United States says the drone strikes are a key tool in the battle against Islamist militants. But many in Pakistan believe they kill mainly civilians.

With reporting by AFP and AP
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