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Hagel in Pakistan visit to ease U.S. drones tension

There has been a documented surge in U.S. drone strikes on Pakistan since the Obama administration took office

Published: Updated:

Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel visited Pakistan on Monday for talks as Washington seeks to defuse tensions over controversial U.S. drone strikes and Islamabad’s role in Afghanistan.

In the first visit by a U.S. defense secretary in nearly four years, Hagel met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad and also met with other top officials, including the country’s new army chief, Agence France-Presse reported.

Ties between Washington and Islamabad have been troubled over U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal area as well as Afghan Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan’s borders.

Prime Minister Sharif “reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for the Afghan peace and reconciliation process,” a Pakistan government statement said.

“The Prime Minister also conveyed Pakistan’s deep concern over continuing U.S. drone strikes, stressing that drone strikes were counter-productive to our efforts to combat terrorism.”

After greeting Prime Minister Sharif, Hagel said Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan had a “lot of common and mutual interests” and that he looked forward to discussing regional issues.

Hagel was in Pakistan “in recognition of the tremendous support that Pakistan has provided in the war on terror”, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters.

The defense secretary wanted to affirm continued U.S. military assistance, the official said.

“There is some friction in the relationship”, and Hagel wished to tackle that “head on,” he added

The visit came after Hagel’s deputies said NATO shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan would resume after the end of anti-drone protests.

In recent weeks, activists opposed to the drone raids forcibly searched trucks in northwest Pakistan in a campaign to disrupt NATO supply routes to and from Afghanistan.

The protesters prompted U.S. officials to temporarily halt the shipments to protect the safety of truck drivers carrying NATO equipment.

The crossing is the main overland route used by the Americans and NATO to withdraw tons of military hardware from Afghanistan as part of a massive troop withdrawal set to be completed by the end of 2014.

President Barack Obama has defended the drone strikes as an effective, lawful tool used with restraint to target suspected al-Qaeda militants. But human rights groups and Pakistani politicians say the missile attacks have killed innocent civilians and must stop.

Pakistan is seen as crucial to peace in neighboring Afghanistan as it was a key backer of the hardline 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Kabul and is believed to shelter some of the movement’s leaders.

Hagel was in Pakistan after two days in Afghanistan, where he urged the President Hamid Karzai to sign a long-delayed security agreement that will allow NATO-led forces to stay in the country after 2014.

(With AFP)