ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistani leaders on Tuesday ended a seven-month blockade on Afghanistan-bound NATO supply routes through their country, a long-awaited move that hinged on Washington's acquiescence to Islamabad's demand for an apology for the deaths of two dozen Pakistani soldiers killed by errant U.S. airstrikes last fall.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she had called her Pakistani counterpart, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, on Tuesday and issued an apology for the soldiers' deaths: "We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again."
The closure of the supply routes had been costing U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan about $100 million a month, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told Congress in June. Without transit access through Pakistan, NATO was forced to rely exclusively on a much more costly supply route through Central Asia.
For Pakistan, however, the need to resolve the stalemate was equally urgent. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government grew concerned about becoming increasingly estranged from the West and potentially losing millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
The breakdown in relations was triggered by the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border Nov. 26. The attack, which Pakistani leaders insisted was unprovoked and deliberate, infuriated a country already deeply at odds with the U.S. over Washington's use of drone missile strikes against militants within Pakistan, the secret American commando raid deep into Pakistani territory that killed Osama bin Laden a year ago, and the release of a CIA contractor accused of killing two Pakistani men in January 2011.
Pakistani officials reacted by barring NATO from using their country as a conduit for supplies destined for Western coalition troops in Afghanistan, and ordering the U.S. out of an air base in southwestern Pakistan that the CIA had apparently been using to launch drone attacks into the country's tribal northwest.
Islamabad laid out a list of conditions the U.S. had to meet before it would lift the blockade on NATO supply routes. One of those demands, an apology from the U.S. for the deaths of the 24 soldiers, proved to be the biggest roadblock.
Officials in Washington had expressed regret for the incident but balked at giving an apology. The request was seen in Washington as difficult to meet, given the determination by American military investigators that Pakistan was equally culpable because its soldiers, stationed on a ridge overlooking the border, had fired first on U.S. troops on the Afghan side of the border.
Another major sticking point in negotiations was Pakistan's demand for a step-up in fees NATO would pay for using Pakistan as a transit conduit for supply convoys. NATO had been paying about $250 per truck, and at one point Pakistan was insisting on raising the cost to $5,000 per truck. U.S. officials had called the proposed increase unrealistic.
Clinton said Khar told her that Pakistan had decided to reopen the supply routes, and had decided not to charge any transit fee. However, it remained unclear whether Pakistan still planned to demand other financial charges or tolls.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: A Pakistani security official stands guard at one of the main routes that have been used to supply logistics to NATO's forces in Afghanistan, near the Afghan border in Khyber Agency, on May 20. Credit: Wali Khan Shinwari / EPA