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Pakistan puts travel curbs on US diplomats

/ Source: The Associated Press

Pakistan has placed new travel restrictions on American diplomats living in the country, a U.S. official said Saturday, in the latest sign of the breakdown in ties between Islamabad and Washington since the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan reacted furiously to the May 2 bin Laden raid deep inside the country because it was carried out with no warning to authorities in Islamabad. The fallout battered an already frayed relationship seen as key to the fight against al-Qaida and Washington's hopes of reaching a settlement in Afghanistan and withdrawing troops.

Islamabad sent home at least 90 U.S. soldiers training Pakistani troops in counterinsurgency and severely cut back on intelligence cooperation. The Obama administration, which took office pledging to strengthen ties with Islamabad, announced it was cutting more than one-third of its military aid to the country.

While Washington's large civilian aid program has been unaffected, the move to restrict diplomats' movements adds a new irritant to the relationship and suggests military-to-military tensions are bleeding into the civilian sphere.

A letter from the Foreign Ministry sent to the American Embassy last month states that all of its diplomats must now apply for special permission to leave the capital five days in advance of travel, including visits to cities where America has consulates.

Such curbs appear to be an unusual step between friendly states. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations requires host states to allow foreign diplomats "freedom of movement" in the country except for restricted areas. Other foreigners living in Pakistan are free to travel around most of the country.

There are ways, however, to restrict the movement of diplomats without violating the convention.

The letter, dated June 13, was obtained by The Associated Press on Saturday. The AP obtained a second letter dated this month from the Civil Aviation Authority to security officers at Benazir Bhutto International Airport instructing them to carry out the Foreign Ministry order.

A U.S. official confirmed the new restrictions and said the embassy was working with the government to resolve the issue. He did not give his name because of the sensitivity of the relationship at present.

It was unclear if other foreign missions in Islamabad had also received a similar notice.

In response to a question, the Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that no "U.S.-specific restrictions have been applied." It said Pakistan was fully mindful of its obligations under the Vienna Convention and was discussing the issue with the embassy.

Earlier this month, at least one carload of American diplomats was refused entry to Peshawar, the main northwestern city. Other diplomats have been able to travel unhindered outside Islamabad since the letter was sent, the American official said.

The United States is nominally a partner with Pakistan, but many Pakistanis, including those in the government, media and armed forces, regard it with mistrust or hostility. The bin Laden raid, and the shooting deaths of two Pakistani men by a CIA contractor in January, were taken as more signs that Washington has malevolent intentions in the country.

The fact that bin Laden had been hiding in an army town close to the capital only reinforced suspicions in Washington that Pakistan was an unreliable partner in the fight against al-Qaida. There are also growing frustrations with Islamabad over its refusal to act against powerful militant factions in the northwest that are killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan but pose no immediate threat to Pakistan.