TORKHAM: There was no sign on Sunday of Pakistan opening its border crossing to NATO trucks carrying essential supplies to Afghanistan, as President Asif Ali Zardari prepared to meet Western leaders.
A furious Pakistan slammed shut the Torkham border gate in its northwest to NATO vehicles in November when air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, souring already fragile relations between allies Washington and Islamabad.
That left hundreds of containers of supplies intended for the 130,000 NATO troops in neighbouring Afghanistan stranded at a port in Karachi, although the Western alliance said it had other ways of making up for the shortfall.
Six months on, Pakistan on Friday allowed containers of office supplies for the US embassy in Kabul to cross into Afghanistan via Torkham, giving rise to hopes that Islamabad would imminently let NATO again use the crossing.
But officials at Torkham, a dusty and mountainous outpost through which trucks packed with mostly fuel and food for NATO used to trundle through daily, told AFP there was no link between supplies for embassies and NATO goods.
"Some 17 containers of various countries were allowed to pass in last six months and it's normal because they had diplomatic protection," said Mazhar Ali, a government official at Torkham.
An AFP reporter who on Sunday travelled from the northwestern Peshawar city to Torkham, on the dangerous Khyber Pass, confirmed no NATO vehicles were going through, nor were there even any waiting at the pass.
"NATO supply is completely closed. We have not received any fresh order to reopen it," Ali told AFP.
"We are only allowing private vehicles and commercial trucks, we have even no intimation for the reopening of NATO supplies."
Pakistan tribal police and troops were searching every vehicle passing through the main iron gate at Torkham, where thousands of veiled women and children were also crossing on foot.
Torkham lies on the still-controversial Durand Line, which British imperialists drew through millions of Pashtun tribesmen to separate Pakistan from landlocked Afghanistan.
President Zardari, who accepted a last-minute invitation to attend, will be one of the key figures when 50 world leaders gather in Chicago for one of the biggest NATO summits in history later Sunday.
Their aim is to hammer out a unified exit strategy from Afghanistan after a decade of war. Washington is also hoping that Zardari will agree to reopen Torkham.
But US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that Islamabad, seen as key to ending the Afghan war, was demanding too high a price to resume the deliveries across its territory.
Quoting a senior US official, the daily said Islamabad now wanted $5,000 per truck, compared with $250 previously, amounting to a handsome sum for the thousands of trucks that rumble across the border daily.
"Considering the financial challenges that we're facing, that's not likely," Panetta told the daily.
The border closure to NATO, which says the goods it needs are being flown in to Afghanistan instead from Central Asia, is good news for some.
The lone parking terminal for NATO at Torkham has been abandoned with some commercial vehicles and private trucks taking the opportunity to park their vehicles there.
Shopkeepers in the nearby Landikotal border town said they felt more relaxed with the ban.
"No NATO supply truck means no attack," Inayat Khan, 22, who runs a grocery shop, told AFP.
"We fear that militants will again start attacking if NATO supplies resume." Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants frequently attacked NATO supply vehicles in the northwest region of Pakistan, the most volatile part of the country and where the insurgents are most active.