US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led calls on Pakistan Wednesday to reconsider boycotting talks on Afghanistan, but stopped short of apologising for the deaths of 24 soldiers in NATO strikes.
The Pakistani cabinet took the decision in protest against Saturday's attack in the mountains on the Afghan-Pakistani border, the worst cross-border assault by US-led NATO troops in 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has closed the border to NATO convoys, a lifeline for 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, ordered American personnel to vacate an air base reportedly used by CIA drones and launched a review of the alliance.
Yet the precise sequence of events is disputed. Islamabad insists the air strike was unprovoked, even deliberate. Afghan and Western officials have reportedly accused Pakistani forces of firing first.
On Wednesday, the Pakistani military released a video that it said was filmed after the attack. Broadcast on television, it showed the rubble, apparently of two destroyed checkposts. White flags strung on bushes fluttered on a mountain top.
Clinton voiced regret over Pakistan's decision, pledging an investigation "as swiftly and thoroughly as possible" into the "tragic incident" and hoping it would find a "follow-up way" to take part in talks on Afghanistan's future.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin would "see what could be done to change" Islamabad's decision. Afghan President Hamid Karzai also telephoned Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, asking Pakistan for a re-think.
As a neighbour with historic ties to the Taliban, Pakistan is considered integral to ending the decade-long conflict, but experts say a boycott matters less now that expectations for Bonn have been dramatically curtailed.
Diplomats had hoped the conference would help ignite peace with the Taliban, who will not be attending either.
But the September assassination of Kabul peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani, by a reputed Taliban emissary derailed peace efforts, forcing Western and Afghan officials to concede that contacts with insurgents have achieved little.
One diplomatic official in Afghanistan called on the Americans to "act expeditiously" to stave off a boycott.
"If they made a mistake, they have not only to apologise but they have to do something more than that, compensation or something else because that's pretty serious," the official added.
A Western diplomat said Pakistan, viewed by many internationally as a black sheep responsible for violence in Afghanistan, could use the boycott to whip up support "because everyone will appeal on them to come to Bonn".
On the agenda in Bonn is the ongoing process of transition from NATO to Afghan control, long-term international engagement and hopes for integration and reconciliation, said EU envoy to Kabul, Vygaudas Usackas.
"It won't be about reconciliation it will be about long-term commitment, credible, mutual long-term commitment from both sides," Usackas said, adding that reconciliation would have to come from within Afghan society.
"I think something could still be done even without Pakistan because it was never going to be focused only on the Taliban and Pakistan," said Fabrizio Foschini from the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
US-Pakistan ties have been in free fall since a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, reaching a nadir after a covert American raid killed Osama bin Laden on the doorstep of Pakistan's military academy in May.
But Islamabad relies on US aid, and the Americans depend on Pakistani logistical support and want them to do more to fight Afghan Taliban.
On Tuesday, Major General Ishfaq Nadeem briefed a hand-picked group of local journalists, reiterating that the air strikes were unprovoked and spread over a period of two hours despite Pakistani protests to the Americans.
After midnight on November 26, two to three helicopters appeared and opened fire on a Pakistani border post. A second post retaliated by firing anti-aircraft guns and all available weapons, and was then attacked, he said.
"We informed them about the attack. But, the helicopters reappeared and also engaged the... post," Nadeem was quoted as saying.
Retired lieutenant general Talat Masood said the army was finding it difficult to reconcile the US alliance with anti-Americanism, particularly with "middle and younger officers very angry and very upset".
The US military has given investigators until December 23 to submit initial findings on what happened exactly.
Pakistani cable television operators have blocked the BBC World News channel in protest at a documentary questioning Pakistan's commitment to tackling Taliban militancy, and have threatened to suspend other Western broadcasters.
by Marc Burleigh
(c) 2011 AFP
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