Vacating base won’t stop drone operations

Decision amplifies frayed relationship

ISLAMABAD — The United States is vacating an air base in Pakistan used by American drones that target Taliban and al Qaeda militants, complying with a key demand made by Islamabad in retaliation for the NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the U.S. ambassador said Monday.

The move is not expected to significantly curtail drone attacks in Pakistan because Shamsi air base in southwestern Baluchistan province was only used to service drones that had mechanical or weather difficulties.

But Washington’s decision to leave the base shows how the NATO attacks on Nov. 26 have plunged the already strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship to an all-time low.

The crisis threatens U.S. attempts to get Pakistan to cooperate on winding down the Afghan war.

Pakistan immediately retaliated by blocking its Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies and giving the U.S. 15 days to vacate Shamsi - a deadline that falls on Sunday.

Islamabad also is boycotting an international conference in Bonn aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan.

U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter said in an interview on a Pakistani TV station that Washington is doing its best to comply with Pakistan’s demand to leave the air base.

“I think what we can promise you is that we will do everything we can to vacate the Shamsi base by the date that you asked us,” Mr. Munter said.

Mohammed Naeem Mirwani, who owns land outside Shamsi, said two large military aircraft landed at the base Sunday morning and took off again in the afternoon after being loaded with containers.

U.S. and Pakistani officials refused to comment on the aircraft.

Mr. Munter did not mention the use of Shamsi by American drones.

The U.S. does not acknowledge the CIA-run drone program in Pakistan publicly, but U.S. officials have said privately that the strikes have killed many senior Taliban and al Qaeda commanders.

President Obama has significantly stepped up strikes since taking office in 2009.

Pakistani officials regularly criticize drone attacks as violations of the country’s sovereignty, but the government is widely believed to have supported the strikes in the past.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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