ISLAMABAD, May 27: Amid frayed relations over the May 2 raid in Abbottabad killing Osama bin Laden, the United States has started work on expanding its embassy in the capital.

The construction work has been started on the embassy's existing plot and additional land it acquired last year in the Diplomatic Enclave but without paying its cost – Rs1.7billion – to the local authorities. Additionally, the embassy has thus far not submitted site plan of its proposed complex for approval by the Capital Development Authority (CDA).

“We have started a construction project to rehabilitate our ageing compound facilities,” US embassy spokesman Alberto Rodriguez told Dawn . “We are coordinating closely with CDA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other pertinent ministries on all elements related to the construction.”

The US authorities have also asked the government for a waiver on stamp duty and transfer fee of additional eight acres (almost 40,000 sq yards) of additional land.

However, the spokesman maintained: “The embassy of Pakistan in the United States is exempt from taxes on its property in Washington D.C, as are all other diplomatic bilateral missions in line with the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Reciprocally, the embassy of the United States in Pakistan is exempt from taxes on our property holdings here.”

He also quoted the article 23 of the convention, which says, “The sending state and the head of the mission shall be exempt from all national, regional or municipal dues and taxes in respect of the premises of the mission, whether owned or leased, other than such as represent payment for specific services rendered.”On August 19 last year US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale was quoted as saying that the embassy's expansion reflected Washington's added focus on its relations with Pakistan. She said the US was focused on efforts to expand its relations with Pakistan and intended to fulfill its commitments with the people of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the US embassy has been asked to pay the cost of the additional land it acquired last year for the expansion of its existing building. According to a CDA letter, the embassy has been asked for the payment through the Foreign Office.

The embassy acquired additional eight acres besides its existing building for Rs1.7 billion but so far no money has been paid to the authority.

A senior CDA official, who did not want to be named, said apart from not releasing the payment, the embassy also did not submit site plans for its proposed complex on the additional land.

Earlier, the embassy acquired additional 18 acres at the rate of Rs15,000 per sq yard in the Diplomatic Enclave. There were reports that the US was increasing the number of staff in the Islamabad embassy, including 350 Marines and even Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs).

Later, the CDA through the Foreign Office increased the cost of land from Rs15,000 per sq yard to 80,000 per sq yard (almost equivalent to $1,000). But the embassy opposed the increase and refused to pay according to the revised rate.

Other embassies and foreign missions wanting to have land in the enclave had also rejected the proposed increase.

Due to the strong reaction of the diplomatic community, the government had reduced the price to $500 per sq yard.

The US Embassy had also cut down its demand for additional land from 18 to eight acres so that it could pay the revised cost within the amount allocated by Washington for the purpose.

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