- Associated Press - Saturday, January 29, 2011

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The United States demanded the immediate release of an American official arrested in the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis, upping the stakes Saturday in a spat that has revealed the fragility of a relationship Washington believes is crucial for success in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda.

The U.S. Embassy said the man had a diplomatic passport and was immune from prosecution. It accused the Pakistani police of illegally detaining him. The mission said the man, who the U.S. has not named, acted in self-defense against two armed men who approached his car in the city of Lahore on Thursday, intent on robbing him.

Rana Sanaullah, the law minister in Punjab province where the killings took place, said the American’s fate would be decided in the courts. He said the provincial government could not free him even if directed to by the central government.

“It is for the court to decide whether someone having a diplomatic passport is allowed to kill someone,” he told The Associated Press. “If the American government wants to get him released, it will have to plead before the court.”

Allowing the American to return home without facing trial could spark a potentially destabilizing backlash against the government, which is already weak and accused by critics of being subservient to the U.S. The killings in Lahore have been seized on by many in Pakistan as fresh evidence of America’s malign intent in the region.

Many here don’t trust the government in its dealings with Washington, a legacy of its stance on U.S. drone strikes in the northwest against militants. The attacks are unpopular among many Pakistanis and Islamabad publicly protests them. But the country’s leaders are widely believed to agree to the attacks, and even provide intelligence on some of them.

“This is a test case for our rulers,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of an Islamist party that recently pulled out of the ruling coalition. “A foreigner, an American cannot be allowed to shed blood this way. The matter is in the court. The facts will be revealed there.”

The man was taken into custody soon after the shooting and appeared in court Friday for an initial hearing. U.S. officials were granted access to him only late the same day, soon after prosecutors said they would pursue possible murder charges against him.

The embassy statement made it clear Washington did not want to see him brought before a Pakistani judge again.

“The United States Embassy in Pakistan calls for the immediate release” of the diplomat, it said.

The U.S. Embassy statement did not answer all the questions that have swirled around the incident, including what the American did at the mission and why he was carrying a gun. The lack of clarity has fueled media speculation he may have been a CIA agent or a security contractor, as well as questions over whether he qualified for diplomatic immunity.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Courtney Beale said only that the detained man was “a member of the administrative and technical staff.” Separately, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that the man was authorized by the United States to carry a weapon, but that it was a “gray area” whether Pakistani law permitted him to do so.

A third man died when he was allegedly hit by an American car that rushed to the scene to help the U.S. official. The statement did not refer to that incident. Pakistani police have said they want to question the driver of that vehicle as well.

Washington has made strengthening ties with Pakistan a top priority and is committed to giving it $7.5 billion dollars in civilian aid, one of its largest programs anywhere in the world. It wants to secure the country’s help in stabilizing Afghanistan by attacking militant sanctuaries on its side of the border.

Western diplomats travel with armed guards in many parts of Pakistan because of the risk of militant attack. Lahore has seen frequent terrorist bombings and shootings over the last two years, though the city’s small expatriate population has not been directly targeted.

Under widely accepted international conventions, diplomats are generally free from prosecution in the countries they work to ensure that they do not become victims of rivalry between the states. Sometimes diplomats accused of serious crimes face trial in their own country.

The issue of American diplomats or their security details carrying weapons inside Pakistan was a hot-button subject last year among certain politicians and sections of the media, which were pushing conspiracy stories about armed U.S. spies roaming the streets, threatening ordinary Pakistanis. The Pakistani government never clearly stated who and under what circumstances foreigners were allowed to carry arms.

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Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad and Babar Dogar in Lahore contributed to this report.