ISLAMABAD — Trucks bearing NATO supplies began flowing again Sunday across a critical border crossing into Afghanistan, opened a day earlier than expected by Pakistan and ending a blockade that had raised tensions between Washington and a key ally.
Pakistan had shut down the Torkham crossing along the Khyber Pass after a U.S. helicopter strike in the border area killed two Pakistani soldiers 11 days ago.
Following an apology from top U.S. officials last week, Pakistan announced Saturday that Torkham would be reopened. The crossing is usually closed Sundays, however, and the U.S. had said it did not expect trucks to begin moving again until Monday.
It was not clear whether the decision to allow the vehicles through Sunday was a goodwill gesture by Islamabad, or a pragmatic move to relieve the backlog of vehicles that have been stranded along roads in Pakistan and left vulnerable to militant attacks.
During the blockade, about 150 trucks were destroyed and some drivers and police were injured in near-daily attacks which left drivers fearing for their lives and hurt trucking companies' profits.
"I am very happy that our difficult days have finally ended and we are through now," driver Khan Rehman told The Associated Press minutes before he drove the first truck into Afghanistan just after noon. "I am thankful to the government of Pakistan for ending our hardship."
Though the U.S. has said the Torkham closure has not affected its ability to keep troops in Afghanistan supplied, the blockade was another irritant in its relationship with Pakistan.
At the heart of the tensions is Washington's contention that Pakistan has been unwilling to go after Afghan Taliban militants in its lawless border region near Afghanistan, with whom it has strong historical ties and who generally focus their attacks on Western troops.
NATO has responded to Pakistan's position by increasing its forces in key areas in Afghanistan near the border, including in Khost and Paktia provinces which abut Pakistan's tribal region, German Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a NATO spokesman, told reporters in Kabul. A stronger force has also been put in place near Spin Boldak in Kandahar province, which borders Pakistan's Baluchistan province, he said.
The U.S. has also sharply escalated its use of unmanned drone missile strikes targeting militants in Pakistan's border region.
The U.S. rarely acknowledges the covert missile program, but officials have said privately that they have killed several senior Taliban and al-Qaida commanders. Pakistan officially opposes the program, but is believed to secretly support it.
Two suspected drone attacks in North Waziristan on Sunday morning killed eight people – the ninth and 10th such strikes this month.
In the first attack, a drone fired two missiles at a pair of cars in an Afghan refugee camp in the Spin Wam area, killing six people, Pakistani intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Minutes later, a drone killed two people near the bank of a river just outside the refugee camp, the officials said.
The identities of the people killed were not known, but the area is dominated by a militant group led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur that regularly attacks NATO troops in Afghanistan.
In September, the U.S. is believed to have launched at least 21 missile strikes, nearly double the previously monthly record.
Throughout the Torkham closure, NATO said the blockade did not affect its ability to keep troops supplied because hundreds of trucks still crossed into landlocked Afghanistan every day through Central Asian countries to the country's north and through one border crossing in Pakistan's southwest that remained open. But the reopening does reduce strain on the supply line.
Pakistan is an important supply route for fuel, military vehicles, spare parts, clothing and other non-lethal supplies for foreign troops in landlocked Afghanistan – although NATO has reduced its reliance on the country by using Central Asian routes to the north. NATO now ships about 40 percent of its non-lethal supplies through Pakistan, down from 80 percent at its peak.
By the end of the day after the border crossing was reopened, some 120 trucks carrying NATO supplies – 40 of them carrying fuel – had crossed into Afghanistan through Torkham, said local government official Raza Khan.
"It's easier for us to come to grips with logistics and supplies when Torkham gate is open," Blotz said.
Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar and Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Heidi Vogt in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.