Pakistan closes US supply route to hit militants

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistan suspended truck shipments of U.S. military supplies through the famed Khyber Pass on Tuesday after launching an offensive against militants who are trying to cripple Washington's war on a resurgent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

The U.S. military said a temporary closure of the key supply line was not a problem, and praised the campaign in the rugged hills of northwestern Pakistan where al-Qaida leaders — including Osama bin Laden — are believed hiding.

The operation came amid tensions between Pakistan and its eastern neighbor, India, triggered by last month's terror attack in Mumbai, which the Indian government and Washington have blamed on Islamic extremists based in Pakistan.

Pakistan urged India to pull back troops that it claimed had been sent near their border after Islamabad began moving troops toward the frontier. India said it had done nothing to aggravate tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors. Both countries also appealed for calm.

Militants in the Khyber Pass have vowed to choke off supplies heading across Pakistan's western border to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, where fighting is escalating seven years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled a Taliban regime.

Western forces in landlocked Afghanistan rely on the winding, mountainous road for delivery of up to 75 percent of their fuel, food and other goods, which arrive in Pakistan via the port city of Karachi. Ammunition and weapons are flown in.

With the U.S. preparing to almost double the number of its soldiers in Afghanistan next year, the Western forces already were looking for alternate supply routes.

Last month, The Associated Press reported that NATO was close to reaching deals with Central Asian countries north of Afghanistan that would allow the alliance to truck in "non-lethal" supplies from there.

NATO has reached a similar agreement with Russia that remains in force despite tensions triggered by the fighting in the former Soviet republic of Georgia this year, alliance officials said.

Tariq Hayat Khan, the top administrator in the Khyber area, said Pakistani security forces were striking at militants using helicopter gunships and heavy artillery. Another official in the region said the road was closed because of the offensive.

"This operation will continue until the goal is achieved, which is nothing less then the elimination of trouble makers," Khan told The Associated Press. He said he had no information on any casualties.

Neither official said how long the road might be closed.

An AP photographer in Jamrud, at the entrance to the Khyber Pass area, saw tanks moving up the road, along with trucks carrying soldiers and towing heavy artillery.

Suspected militants staged a series of raids on truck depots near the Pakistani city of Peshawar in recent weeks at the entrance to the pass, killing several guards and burning hundreds of vehicles.

In November, militants ambushed a supply convoy in the pass and seized several Humvees headed for U.S. troops. They were pictured driving off in the vehicles, scoring a major propaganda victory.

"We are glad that they're helping clean out what they call miscreants in that area that have been attacking the supply line," said Col. Greg Julian, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. "Temporary closure (of the road) is not a problem. It's best that they conduct this operation and clear out these trouble spots."

American commanders insist the militant attacks on the supply line have not disrupted their mission in Afghanistan. They also say they have enough supplies to last many weeks in case shipping routes are blocked.

Pakistan's army began another offensive in Khyber last June after militants began threatening the main northwest city of Peshawar. Very few casualties were reported and within a couple of weeks tribal elders negotiating on behalf of militants struck a peace deal with Pakistani authorities.

A smaller number of supplies get to Afghanistan by a second land crossing at Chaman in Pakistan's southwest. That road was open Tuesday, a witness said.

On a normal day, some 300 trucks carrying military supplies travel up the Khyber Pass. Media reports have said truck companies are becoming increasingly unwilling to transport the goods because of the danger.

The pass is a roughly 30-mile stretch of switch-backs used by Moghul armies to invade the Indian subcontinent and by British colonial forces on doomed missions to subdue Afghanistan.