- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan

Suspected Taliban fighters hijacked trucks carrying Humvees and other supplies for U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan, authorities said Tuesday after a brazen attack near the Khyber Pass that underscored the militants’ grip across key mountain strongholds.

The assault highlighted the vulnerability of a vital supply route for the 65,000 U.S. and NATO forces battling a resurgent Taliban in landlocked Afghanistan. A significant amount of supplies for the Western forces go through Pakistan.

Attacks on convoys carrying food, fuel and other supplies are common on the road. But Monday’s raid was especially large and well-organized. It also could further strain U.S.-Pakistani relations over rooting out Taliban and al Qaeda militants along the border, which remain entrenched despite military offensives and U.S. missile strikes.

Some 60 masked militants blocked the route at several points before overpowering the convoy, said Fazal Mahmood, a government official in Khyber tribal region. He identified the attackers as members of Pakistan’s Taliban movement.

Security forces traded fire with the gunmen, but were forced to retreat, he said. The militants took about 13 trucks along with the drivers, who were thought to be Pakistani.

A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan confirmed the thefts late Tuesday.

“There were some U.S. military materials that were taken - Humvees and water tank trailers,” said Maj. John Redfield.

In the past, U.S. and NATO officials have played down their losses along the pass. But earlier this year, NATO said it was trying to reduce its dependence on the route by negotiating with Russia and other nations to let it truck “non-lethal” supplies to Afghanistan through Central Asia.

Security forces, backed by helicopter gunships, hunted for the missing trucks and drivers. The military said late Tuesday it had recovered some of the stolen materials but would not specify what.

Most of the supplies for U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan arrive by ship at Pakistan’s port of Karachi in unmarked containers. They are then taken by colorfully decorated trucks to places like Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The Khyber Pass, a stretch of about 30 miles, has long been an important trade route and militarily strategic area traversed for centuries by armies, from Mughal warriors to British colonial forces.

It abuts the main northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.

In a bid to eliminate militancy in the border region, the U.S. has stepped up unilateral missile strikes there, a move condemned by Pakistani leaders.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, headed to the United States on Tuesday for a U.N. conference on interfaith relations, was expected to discuss the missile strikes with U.S. officials.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met with a U.S. congressional delegation Tuesday and issued a statement saying there was a “need for restoration of trust between” the two nations and that there must be “complete respect for Pakistan’s territorial integrity.”

Pakistan has pursued its own military offensives against insurgents. The U.S. has praised the operations, but the militants have staged a wave of suicide attacks, apparently in retaliation.

A suicide bomber blew himself up Tuesday outside a stadium in Peshawar hosting athletes from around the country, killing at least three people and wounding 17 while narrowly missing some top government leaders, officials said.

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