PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistan temporarily barred oil tankers and container trucks from a key passageway to Afghanistan, threatening a critical supply route for U.S. and NATO troops on Sunday and raising more fears about security in the militant-plagued border region.
The suspension came as U.S.-led coalition troops reported killing 30 insurgents in fighting in southern Afghanistan and detaining two militant leaders — both in provinces near Pakistan's lawless border.
Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are behind much of the escalating violence along the lengthy, porous Afghan-Pakistan border, and both nations have traded accusations that the other was not doing enough to keep militants out from its side.
The tensions come as violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest level since the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime in 2001, and as a surge in U.S. missile strikes on the Pakistani side of the border has prompted protests from Pakistan government leaders.
Last Monday, a band of militants hijacked around a dozen trucks whose load included Humvees headed to the foreign forces in Afghanistan. Renewed security concerns prompted officials to impose the temporary ban on tankers and trucks carrying sealed containers late Saturday, government official Bakhtiar Khan said. He said it could be lifted as early as Monday.
"The convoys will continue flowing. We will not discuss when, or where, or what," he said.
Denied entry to the route, dozens of the trucks and oil tankers were parked along a main road near Peshawar, the regional capital.
Asked about security fears, Rehmatullah, a driver who gave only one name and said his truck was carrying a military vehicle of some sort, said, "This is our job, and we have to do it, but yes, we have a security risk every time we pass through the route."
Many of the supplies headed to foreign troops arrive in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi in unmarked, sealed shipping containers and are loaded onto trucks for the journey either to the border town of Chaman or the primary route, through the famed Khyber Pass.
Last week's ambush took place at the entrance to the pass. Police said around 60 masked militants forced the convoy to stop, briefly trading fire with nearby security officers. U.S. officials say the attackers seized two Humvees and a water truck. Several trucks carrying wheat for the World Food Program were also hijacked.
While critical of U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan's northwest tribal regions, both Pakistan's prime minister and president denied any plans to subvert the supply line as a pressure tactic in recent interviews with The Associated Press.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, 30 insurgents were killed during a clash with U.S.-led coalition troops in Helmand province, a statement from the U.S. military said. There were no coalition or Afghan casualties, it said.
Also Saturday, in eastern Paktia province's Zurmat district the coalition troops killed five al-Qaida-associated insurgents and nabbed eight, including a militant leader accused of helping the Taliban move and train Arab and other foreign fighters into Afghanistan, the statement said. The militant was not identified.
The United States once supported Jalaluddin Haqqani as a "freedom fighter" when he fought against the former Soviet Union's 1980s occupation of Afghanistan. He and his son Sirajuddin are now considered a main threat against U.S. forces and their allies in eastern Afghanistan.
On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai offered to provide security for the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, if he agrees to enter peace talks, and suggested that if the U.S. and other Western nations disagreed they could leave the country or oust him.
"If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices, remove me or leave if they disagree," Karzai said.
Omar is a leader of the Afghan Taliban and headed the government toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Since then, he has been in hiding but is believed to be running the insurgency.
Karzai has long supported drawing the Islamist militia into the political mainstream on the condition that they accept the country's constitution.
In September, Taliban members met with Afghan and Pakistani officials, but there were no concrete results.
Omar has not directly responded to these calls, but spokesmen associated with the Taliban have previously said U.S. and other foreign troops must withdraw before any talks.
Karzai dismissed that, saying foreign troops are necessary for Afghanistan's security.
The British military said one of its soldiers was killed when his vehicle was hit by an explosion in the southern Helmand Province on Saturday. NATO reported one of its soldiers was killed in a roadside bombing, but it was unclear if the two attacks were related.
Attacks in Afghanistan are up 30 percent from 2007, military officials say. More than 5,400 people — most of them militants — have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to a tally of official figures provided to the AP.