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Pakistan, US Discussing Counterterror Use of Airspace

FILE - A Pakistani F-16 fighter jet flies past during a military parade in Islamabad, March 23, 2017. The U.S. and Pakistan are reportedly engaged in talks about the U.S. use of Pakistani airspace to conduct counterterror strikes against targets in Afghanistan.

Pakistan stopped short Saturday of refuting media claims it is working out a deal for the use of its airspace by the United States to launch counterterrorism military missions in neighboring Afghanistan.

The statement comes a day after CNN reported that Washington “is nearing a formalized agreement” with Islamabad for use of Pakistan’s airspace to conduct military and intelligence operations against terrorists operating on Afghan soil.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Asim Iftikhar Ahmad said in a statement “that no such understanding was in place.”

“Pakistan and the U.S. have longstanding cooperation on regional security and counterterrorism, and the two sides remain engaged in regular consultations,” Ahmad added. He did not elaborate further.

The negotiations were continuing and the terms of the agreement could still change before it is finalized, the American news network said, citing three sources familiar with the details of a classified briefing U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration gave Friday to members of Congress.

Washington has been trying to work out an arrangement to enable the American military to conduct timely counterterrorism operations against the regional branch of the Islamic State group, known as Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-Khorasan), and militants linked to other terrorist groups in Afghanistan since U.S. and NATO troops withdrew from the country in August after two decades there.

Islamabad has expressed a desire to sign a memorandum of understanding in exchange for assistance with its own counterterrorism efforts and help in managing the relationship with Pakistan’s archival India, according to the CNN report.

Pakistan’s air and land routes played a crucial role in facilitating the U.S.-led punitive international invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago to oust the then-Taliban government for harboring al-Qaida planners of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on America.

Pakistani and U.S. officials acknowledge the American military still uses Pakistan's airspace for intelligence-gathering missions in Afghanistan, but they say a formal agreement needs to be negotiated for using the facility in the future.

The foreign military withdrawal from Afghanistan enabled the Taliban insurgency to oust the Western-backed government in Kabul in August and take control of the country.

But IS-Khorasan has since intensified attacks across the war-torn country, killing and injuring hundreds of Afghans, mostly civilians. The terrorist outfit carried out a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport, where thousands of people had gathered to try to catch an emergency evacuation flight during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from the country.

The blast killed nearly 200 people, including 13 U.S. service members. IS-Khorasan also has claimed responsibly for two mosque bombings earlier this month that killed and injured hundreds of worshippers, mostly members of the Afghan minority Shiite community.