KARACHI, (AFP) — Heavily armed gunmen in Pakistan set ablaze more than two dozen trucks and tankers carrying fuel and supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan, one day after Pakistan closed the border to the convoys.
Employing rocket launchers and assault rifles, it was the biggest such attack in southern Pakistan. Ambushes of NATO convoys are not uncommon, but are normally concentrated in strongholds of Islamist militants in the northwest.
Towering walls of flame engulfed the vehicles, which had been parked behind a petrol station on the highway leading north from Karachi, the port where NATO supplies are offloaded for the long road trip through Pakistan.
“Around 20 attackers armed with rocket launchers and assault rifles attacked these trucks. They set ablaze 27 trucks parked there,” Shikarpur district police chief Abdul Hameed Khoso told AFP of the pre-dawn attack.
Police said they had picked up around 10 suspects and were scouring the area for leads after the attack, which has shocked the south.
“This is the first major attack on NATO trucks in Sindh,” Sindh provincial government spokesman Jamil Soomro confirmed to AFP.
The police chief, Khoso, said: “We suspect that some elements belonging to extremist organisations are behind the attack, who want to disrupt peace.”
Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants have been blamed for attacks that have killed more than 3,700 people across Pakistan in revenge for the government’s alliance with the United States in the war in Afghanistan and on militancy.
The militants have carved out bases in border areas with Afghanistan that lie outside direct government control and which Washington considers an Al-Qaeda headquarters and possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden.
The region is being subject to a huge increase in US missile strikes and was reportedly where Al-Qaeda hatched a plot to attack cities in Britain, France and Germany uncovered by Western intelligence agencies.
Four cross-border raids by NATO helicopters based in Afghanistan have been reported in the tribal belt in the last week and Pakistan on Thursday lodged protests with visiting CIA chief Leon Panetta.
“The government of Pakistan strongly disapproves any incident of violation of its sovereignty. Any violation of internationally agreed principles is counter-productive and unacceptable,” President Asif Ali Zardari said.
Pakistan shut the main land route for NATO supplies into Afghanistan after the military accused alliance helicopters of killing three Pakistani soldiers early Thursday in the Kurram district.
Officials said the route remained blocked Friday and that no NATO supplies were being allowed to enter Afghanistan for the second consecutive day through the Torkham border crossing in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber district.
“Trucks carrying fuel and other goods for NATO are still not allowed to enter Afghanistan,” an administrative official at Torkham told AFP.
A security official in the northwestern city of Peshawar said no orders had been received to restore the supplies for NATO.
US officials say they are hopeful that they can resolve the issue in talks with Pakistani counterparts.
US Senator John Kerry, one of the architects of a 7.5 billion dollar US aid package for Pakistan, spoke to Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani by telephone and afterwards told AFP: “I think we will work through this.”
“Obviously they are concerned — and ought to be — when there is collateral damage. We need to try to avoid it, and we do,” said Kerry.
NATO confirmed its aircraft entered Pakistani airspace and killed “several armed individuals,” but said crews acted in self-defence after believing they had been fired at from the ground.
Although Pakistan is a key US ally, its powerful military has been accused of playing a double game by supporting Afghan Taliban, which are fighting a nine-year insurgency against now more than 152,000 US-led foreign troops.