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Pakistan reopens supply route used by Western troops

The crucial land route for supplies to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is reopened three days after being closed because of fighting between the Pakistani army and Islamic militants.

January 03, 2009|Laura King

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A crucial land route for military supplies for Western troops in Afghanistan was reopened Friday by Pakistani authorities, three days after being closed because of fighting between the Pakistani army and Islamic militants.

But the reopening of the historic Khyber Pass was unlikely to mark an end to bold attacks by militants that have plagued the route, making shipments of NATO materiel increasingly untenable for the last two months.

About three-quarters of the supplies bound for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. With the expected deployment of as many as 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan in coming months, the security of the supply route is likely to become an even more pressing issue.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials have acknowledged that they are trying to arrange alternate routes through Central Asia, but insist that the loss of supplies through militant attacks on private transport convoys in Pakistan has not had a significant effect on operations in Afghanistan.

However, the sight of burned-out flatbed trucks and militants triumphantly raising the Taliban banner over captured Humvees has become emblematic of the fast-deteriorating situation in and near Peshawar, the principal city in Pakistan's troubled northwest. Taliban fighters have gained a solid foothold on the city's outskirts, where girls schools have been burned, music and video shops blown up and women ordered to veil themselves or face death.

Previous efforts by Pakistani troops to subdue militants in the tribal area known as the Khyber agency have proved short-lived. During a similar offensive in the Khyber agency in June, militants simply decamped before the troops arrived, and filtered back once the soldiers pulled back.

Pakistani officials said artillery and helicopter gunships blasted militant hide-outs during this week's operation, which began Tuesday. But some residents said there was little sign of any direct confrontation between the insurgents and army troops.

Although the militants have repeatedly struck Pakistani cities with suicide attacks, there is little public support for army operations such as the Khyber offensive. Reflecting the weak civilian government's awareness of the mission's unpopularity, the Pakistani army did not issue announcements about troop activities, leaving that to local officials.

The government, led by the Pakistan People's Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is also facing rising public anger over a wave of missile strikes in the tribal belt, believed to be carried out by unmanned U.S. drones. Dozens of such raids have taken place since August, including back-to-back strikes Thursday and Friday in South Waziristan.

Friday's strike, which hit an abandoned girls school being used by insurgents, reportedly killed three people.

Militant leaders are the targets of these missile strikes, and officials say scores of insurgents have been killed in the wave of attacks. But no top-level Al Qaeda or Taliban commanders have been among the dead.

Friday's reopening of the mountain pass came amid continuing fighting elsewhere in Khyber, well away from the route.

Many of the most damaging attacks have come on the hundreds of trucks that routinely halt for days at terminals on the edge of Peshawar, waiting for permission to proceed. Last month, in one particularly brazen strike, hundreds of vehicles parked at truck stops were destroyed.

Militants had previously taken to hijacking trucks as they slowly transited the winding roads. In November, more than a dozen vehicles carrying military supplies were hijacked in a single incident within view of a post manned by Pakistani paramilitary troops.

In a sign of the continuing danger, the region's top administrator, Tariq Hayat Khan, told journalists in Jamrud, the main town in Khyber, that the route would be open only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Khan said that the Khyber operation had turned up several weapons caches that included heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, and that nearly four dozen militants had been captured. But local witnesses said many of the insurgents had fled into the neighboring Mohmand tribal area rather than face the troops.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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