- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan has held up visas for U.S. diplomats, military service members and others, apparently because of hostility within the country toward the expansion of U.S. operations in Pakistan, a senior U.S. diplomat said Wednesday.

U.S. diplomats have also been stopped repeatedly at Pakistani checkpoints as part of what U.S. officials say is a wider focus on foreigners working in Pakistan. U.S. cars are searched, although diplomats are told to open the trunk but to refuse access to the passenger compartment.

The visa holdup is the latest tangible sign of the volatility of official U.S.-Pakistan relations. The two nations have an improving military relationship, but mistrust and suspicion still shadow many government interactions, including U.S. attempts to help Pakistan.

The U.S. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive interaction between the two countries, said the visa clampdown seems to be a reaction to widespread anti-American sentiment, even though many of the affected workers would be doing jobs that bring aid and other help to Pakistan.

The official said that the reaction is probably temporary and that the U.S. does not plan to do more than press Pakistani authorities to relent.

The U.S. Embassy is already large and expanding, with plans to go from about 500 employees to more than 800 in the next 18 months. Most of the growth is related to the expansion of U.S. aid to Pakistan, some of which comes with requirements for accounting and oversight that have rankled Pakistanis.

The official said that at the embassy, several employees have gone home for Christmas leave and will be unable to return because the Pakistani authorities have not extended their visas. In all, 135 visa extensions have been denied, the official said. Other visa applications have been rejected outright, but U.S. authorities have not collected data on how many.

The official said that Pakistani authorities have not provided a comprehensive response to American complaints and that several ministries are involved.

The official said that among those whose visas were held up are mechanics who tend to a fleet of U.S. helicopters that supports Pakistani military operations in the frontier areas.

The helicopters stopped flying when there were insufficient mechanics to maintain them, the official said. Some visas were approved after Pakistani authorities inquired about the grounded helicopters.

In October, President Obama signed into law a $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan. Pakistan’s military criticized the aid as American meddling in the country’s internal affairs.

The measure provides $1.5 billion annually over five years for economic and social programs and comes as Pakistan faces a string of violent militant attacks and bombings as its military orchestrates an offensive into the Taliban heartland.

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