ISLAMABAD — Pakistan said Saturday it will reopen a key border crossing and allow convoys to resume delivering supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan, ending a 10-day blockade during which trucks were stranded on their way to the border and almost 150 were destroyed by attackers.
Pakistan closed the northwest crossing at Torkham on Sept. 30 in an apparent protest over a NATO helicopter incursion that killed two of its soldiers on the border.
Since the closure there have been almost daily attacks on the scores of trucks stranded on their way to Torkham from the port city of Karachi, and on those bottlenecked on the roads to a smaller crossing at Chaman in the southwest that has remained open.
Just hours before the announcement of the reopening, gunmen armed with a rocket attacked 29 tankers carrying NATO fuel supplies which had been stopped outside a roadside restaurant in southwestern Pakistan, setting them ablaze, local government official Abdul Mateen said.
It was unclear who was behind the latest attack, but the Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for similar assaults on NATO supplies.
Pakistan is a key supply route for fuel, military vehicles, spare parts, clothing and other non-lethal supplies for foreign troops in landlocked Afghanistan.
Though the U.S. has said the Torkham closure has not affected its ability to keep troops supplied, the blockade raised tensions with Pakistan, with which Washington has a close but often troubled alliance in the fight against militants. It also came just as the U.S. was stepping up its shadow war on militants harbored in Pakistan's border regions.
The U.S. accuses Pakistan of being unwilling to go after Afghan Taliban militants in its territory with whom it has strong historical ties and who generally focus their attacks on Western troops.
The U.S. has dramatically increased the number of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt, including two late Friday in North Waziristan that killed nine suspected militants – the seventh and eighth missile strikes this month.
In September, the U.S. is believed to have launched at least 21 such attacks, an unprecedented number and nearly all in North Waziristan. The U.S. rarely acknowledges the covert missile strike program. Pakistan officially opposes the program, but is believed to secretly support it.
The U.S. on Wednesday apologized for the helicopter strike that prompted the blockade after an investigation concluded the "tragic event could have been avoided with better coalition force coordination with the Pakistan military." Pakistan's Foreign Office then announced Saturday it had decided to reopen the crossing "with immediate effect."
The border is normally closed on Sundays, so Monday appeared to be the soonest the flow of supplies over the crossing would resume, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire, who welcomed what he called a "positive development."
NATO headquarters in Kabul had no immediate comment.
The U.S. and NATO at one point sent some 80 percent of their non-lethal supplies through Pakistan into Afghanistan, but have been steadily reducing that amount, instead using Central Asian routes to the north and other means. About 40 percent of supplies now come through Pakistan, 40 percent through the Central Asian routes, and 20 percent by air, according to the U.S. Embassy.
Perhaps worst affected by the Torkham closure were the truckers and Pakistani trucking companies, who are not paid until delivery and were regularly attacked while waiting for the crossing to be reopened. Some 2,500 to 3,000 trucks bringing supplies to U.S. or other NATO troops are on Pakistan's roads at any given time.
"This business is getting so dangerous – the recent happenings have made us think about not working for NATO because we can't put our lives in constant danger," said 37-year-old trucker Shaukat Khan, who has been sitting at the Torkham crossing since the day it was closed.
"We are glad to know that the Pakistani authorities have decided to reopen the crossing."
Gen. Zaman Mamozia, Afghan border commander for the eastern region where the convoys come into the country, said the opening of Torkham was important there as well.
"People in this region are busy and depend on these convoys," Mamozia said. "There are lots of drivers from supply trucks who are from eastern Afghanistan and lots of people work loading and unloading the goods. They will get their jobs back."
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Abdul Sattar in Quetta, and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.