US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta —AP Photo

WASHINGTON: A senior US lawmaker said on Wednesday that apologising to Pakistan over the Salala incident would improve Washington’s relations with a key ally.

“National security of the US will be better served with a positive relationship with Pakistan,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told a Senate hearing on budget priorities for 2013.

The Senator, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, observed that both sides made mistakes in handling the Nov 26 incident, which caused the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a US air raid.

After the raid, Pakistan closed ground supply lines for US and Nato forces in Afghanistan and is still refusing to reopen them.

Senator Feinstein noted that the dispute over the supply lines could be solved “with some civilian acceptance of the mistakes” the US had made.

Such an acceptance could also lead to the reopening of Nato supply lines, she said, adding that “it would do well to apologise” for the mistakes made.

“We appreciate Senator Feinstein for showing the way forward in normalising ties in a relationship that is important to both sides and critical for stabilising the region,” said Pakistan’s Ambassador Sherry Rehman while welcoming the gesture.

Ambassador Rehman and her team spent the entire week on Capitol Hill, trying to cool off tempers raised by a sudden departure of US negotiators from Islamabad.Addressing the same Senate hearing, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said he would not recommend ‘shutting down’ aid to Pakistan.

At the State Department, spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the United States had stayed engaged with Pakistan despite an earlier decision to recall its negotiators from Islamabad.

The conciliatory statements follow an unprecedented decline in bilateral relations last week when Pakistan’s army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani refused to meet a senior US officials. In retaliation, the Americans recalled their team.

The Los Angles Times newspaper reported on Wednesday that before the recall, the United States and Pakistan were “putting the final touches” on a deal for reopening the routes.

“Pakistan had backed away from its demand for a sharp increase in transit fees as a condition for reopening the routes.

There were also signs that Pakistan was open to something short of a high-level public apology,” the report said.

“But Mr Panetta’s comments in Kabul … and his talks on defence cooperation in India … have thrown that progress into doubt.”

The State Department, however, did not agree with this description as spokesperson Nuland told journalists that the two sides had already concluded technical discussions before Americans negotiators returned home.

“We are continuing to stay engaged with the Pakistani side,” she said.

Mr Panetta also was careful while talking about Pakistan at the Senate briefing.

“It is a complicated but necessary relationship,” said the US defence secretary while noting that the US needed this relationship because of its security needs in the area.

The two sides, he said, were still holding talks on how to resolve the dispute over the supply routes.

“We offered condolences, but that is not the only issue now, they are asking for something else too,” said Mr Panetta. “Other elements are also in negotiations that need to be resolved for reopening of GLOCs.”

Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, suggested that the United States should develop a rapid deployment force for dealing with the Haqqani network.

Senator Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, asked Mr Panetta “why would you not recommend shutting down aid to Pakistan?”

“I'll be very careful about shutting down aid to Pakistan, I would expect them to do what they have to do,” said Mr Panetta.

Responding to another question, he said the US was now using the northern route for supplying American and Nato forces in Afghanistan but it was an expensive alternative and was costing additional $100 million a month.


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