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Vital supply route on Pakistan border reopened after attack

Pakistan will immediately reopen a vital supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan 10 days after it was shut following a cross-border air strike by NATO forces, the Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.
Image: Trucks carrying fuel for NATO forces in
Trucks carrying fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan burn following an attack by militants Saturday.STR / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Pakistan will immediately reopen a vital supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan 10 days after it was shut following a cross-border air strike by NATO forces, the Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.

The United States apologized to Pakistan on Wednesday for the Sept. 30 raid that killed two Pakistani soldiers, raising hopes that Pakistan would reopen the Torkham border crossing in the northwest for transporting supplies for NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Militants in Pakistan have attacked convoys of tankers since the incursion to try to disrupt supplies. In the latest such attack, gunmen in the southwest set fire to nearly 30 tankers parked at a roadside restaurant early on Saturday.

Pakistan had closed the Torkham route passing through the Khyber Pass soon after the cross-border incursion killed the soldiers. Authorities cited security reasons.

"After assessing the security situation in all its aspects, the government has decided to reopen the NATO/ISAF supply from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at Torkham with immediate effect," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

"Our relevant authorities are now in the process of coordinating with authorities on the other side of the border to ensure smooth resumption of the supply traffic."

Richard Snelsire, the U.S. embassy spokesman, said Washington welcomed the reopening of the border crossing, and called it "a positive development."

An embassy official, speaking on background, said trucks would likely start moving into Afghanistan on Monday.

Suspected Islamist militants have stepped up attacks on convoys carrying supplies for NATO forces since the Sept. 30 NATO air strike in northwestern Pakistan, which was described by the U.S. ambassador as a terrible accident.

About 20 gunmen set fire to around 30 tankers parked outside at a roadside restaurant near the southwestern town of Sibi, about 120 miles east of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, in a pre-dawn attack, the official said.

The tankers were on their way to the border town of Chaman, where the crossing remains open.

"The attackers first fired shots and then fired small rockets at the tankers. Twenty-eight to 29 tankers caught fire," local government official Naeem Sherwani told Reuters. He said one of the paramilitary soldiers escorting the convoy was wounded.

"We are facing problems in extinguishing the fire," another official, Abdul Mateen, said.

Tankers targeted
Since Pakistan shuttered the border at Torkham, there have been several attacks on supply convoys, including two in which militants torched 70 fuel tankers and killed a driver.

The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for such previous attacks and have demanded that the government permanently bar NATO and the U.S. from using its soil to transport supplies to Afghanistan.

The U.S.-backed Pakistani government is battling Taliban insurgents who remain effective despite military crackdowns on their strongholds in the northwest near the Afghan border.

The U.S. apology for the Sept. 30 cross-border raid had raised the hopes that Pakistan would reopen a vital supply route in the northwest for coalition forces which Islamabad shut after the NATO strike, citing security reasons.

The supply route passing through southwestern Pakistan and Chaman has remained open.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said after the U.S. apology that security was being evaluated and a decision on reopening the supply route through the famous Khyber Pass would be taken "in due course," but also emphasized Washington and Islamabad were "allies in the fight against militancy."

Trucking routes through Pakistan bring in around 40 percent of supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan, according to the United States Transportation Command. Of the remainder, 40 percent come through Afghanistan's neighbors in the north and 20 percent by air.

The United States has been pressing Pakistan to take a harder line against militants launching cross-border attacks from their Pakistani safe havens on Western forces in Afghanistan.

An alleged al-Qaida plot to attack European targets has put Pakistan's performance against militants under further scrutiny.

The United States has also stepped up missile strikes against al-Qaida and Taliban militants by pilot-less drones in Pakistan's lawless northwestern border regions in recent weeks.

On Friday night, at least five militants were killed in the latest such strike in the North Waziristan tribal region.