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Negotiations Continue in Pakistan on Detained US Diplomat

A U.S. consulate employee is escorted by police and officials out of court after facing a judge in Lahore, January 28, 2011
A U.S. consulate employee is escorted by police and officials out of court after facing a judge in Lahore, January 28, 2011

The United Sates is stepping up the pressure on Pakistan to secure the release of an America diplomat involved in a shooting incident that led to the deaths of three Pakistanis.

It took place nearly two weeks ago in the eastern city, Lahore, immediately straining bilateral relations. U.S. officials maintain the detained American, identified as Raymond Davis, killed two Pakistanis in self-defense because they were armed and wanted to hurt him.

The United States has said it regrets the loss of life, but insists the U.S. citizen has diplomatic immunity and has demanded his immediate release, saying his arrest violates international agreements covering diplomatic ties.

Pakistani officials have said the matter is before the court and the fate of the American will be determined by the judicial process.

U.S. Embassy spokesperson Courtney Beale says the two countries are engaged in intense discussions to resolve the crisis. She dismisses reports Washington has suspended all high-level dialogue with Islamabad.

"We are in close contact with the government of Pakistan to resolve this issue, as soon as possible,” Beale said. “We have not suspended all high-level dialogues with Pakistan, but we are continuing talk with them, at high levels, so that we can move past this issue and discuss the other pressing issues in our bilateral agenda."

In a meeting late Monday with President Asif Ali Zardari, U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter reiterated Washington's request the American diplomat be freed immediately.

The bilateral tensions occur before a ministerial-level trilateral meeting in Washington, later this month in which Secretary Hillary Clinton and her Pakistani and Afghan counterparts plan to discuss peace and security efforts in Afghanistan.

Referring to the meeting and other bilateral upcoming engagements, the embassy spokeswoman says, as far as she knows, "nothing has been canceled".

Washington is giving billions of dollars in military and civilian aid to Islamabad to help improve security and economic conditions in the country. The assistance is meant to encourage Pakistan to eliminate terrorist bases in its tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit has also dismissed concerns the case of the detained American is undermining bilateral ties. As he puts sit, the relations are mature enough to navigate through difficulties.

Pakistani authorities have so far avoided making clear statements about whether the American is registered in the country as a diplomat.

International law expert Ahmar Bilal Sufi explains his theory about why the two sides have been unable to resolve the issue.

"There is an enormous public pressure against the grant of immunity and probably the reason for this public pressure is some misunderstanding in the first round of discussions, when we had this episode which came out in the news was initial reports that he was a member of the consular staff here in Lahore,” Sufi said. “And, the consular staff members have a restricted immunity, so [the] general view was that since he is a consular staff therefore in a situation of a grave offense he is not entitled to absolute immunity. But later the U.S. embassy took the position that he is from the diplomatic staff and diplomatic staff, as per the Vienna Convention, are entitled to immunity. Once the U.S. government has taken a very clear position that he is a diplomat, now the pressure has shifted to the government of Pakistan."

Pakistani leaders are worried that if they cave into U.S. demands to free the American official it could trigger widespread protests across the country, where anti-U.S. sentiment is already running high.

Police say a bystander was also killed in the shooting incident, on January 27 in Lahore, when a consulate car rushing to help the American official hit the man. Provincial authorities have sought access to the occupants of the car for questioning. The matter got complicated Sunday when the widow of one of the men who died in the shooting committed suicide. The woman told doctors in a hospital just before her death that she feared her husband's killer would be freed without trial.

The detained American official's next court appearance is set for Friday.