ISLAMABAD— Pakistan has denounced the killing of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike as an attempt to scuttle its plans to engage Islamist insurgents in peace talks.
The government summoned the American ambassador on Saturday to discuss the matter.
Even though the remotely-controlled unmanned American drone has eliminated Pakistan’s most wanted Islamist militant, it has apparently plunged the already troubled relations into a new crisis.
The attack took place this past week in the North Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border and killed, among others, the commander of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud.
Speaking to reporters Saturday in Islamabad, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the U.S. drone strike came just a day before the government was to send a delegation of Islamic clerics to the militant-dominated region to formally invite Mehsud’s group for peace talks. He condemned the U.S. attack as a deliberate bid to “murder” the peace dialogue.
Khan said, “The efforts have been ambushed ... we hope the peace process will go on and this effort, which has been made to de-track the peace process, I hope will fail.”
US ambassador summoned
Minister Khan said the government summoned the U.S. ambassador to register a strong protest and Pakistan's government has taken several other retaliatory decisions. But he would not clearly state whether suspension of convoys ferrying supplies through Pakistan to U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan will come under consideration.
“The entire perspective of Pak-U.S. relations and cooperation is going to be reviewed,” said Khan.
The United States had a $5 million bounty on Mehsud for his role in a deadly suicide attack on a CIA compound in a border province of Afghanistan in 2009. His group also had claimed responsibility for a failed bombing in New York's Times Square in 2010.
The 34-year-old leader had taken over the banned militant group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, in 2009 when its previous head was killed, also by a US drone strike the same year.
Khan said he repeatedly warned the American ambassador in recent weeks that drone strikes should not target Taliban leaders while the newly-elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is attempting to engage in peace talks with Taliban extremists.
He added that Pakistan is helping the United States in its bid to hold peace talks with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan to promote regional and international stability. Khan noted that in the meeting with Prime Minister Sharif in Washington late last month, President Barack Obama voiced support for Pakistan’s peace initiatives to end militancy in the country.
Khan said, “Is this how you support the dialogue process that one day before regular discussions or consultations are due to start you go and take out the leader of the other (Taliban) outfit with whom we were to engage in these talks?”
Rift in relations
U.S. drone operations against fugitive al-Qaida and Taliban operatives in Pakistani border areas, and allegations the Pakistani military backs deadly cross-border insurgent raids on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan have been major causes of mutual suspicions and distrust.
In a related development, popular Pakistani political leader Imran Khan, whose party rules the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, has threatened to block truck convoys ferrying supplies to U.S. and NATO forces in the event of further drone strikes. He was addressing a separate news conference in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
Imran Khan said his party will push the provincial legislature to unanimously adopt a resolution to block the supplies unless Pakistan is assured there will be no drone attacks in future.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province serves as a major supply route for sending supplies to international troops in Afghanistan. A NATO cross-border airstrike that mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in 2011 had also plunged bilateral ties to historic lows and provoked Islamabad to suspend the supply lines for several months.
The latest standoff comes as the United States plans to withdraw most of its forces from Afghanistan by end of next year and it heavily relies on Pakistani land routes for an orderly drawdown.