ISLAMABAD - Pakistan on Saturday demanded the United States vacate an airbase within 15 days, as tension mounted between the two countries, following the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an attack earlier in the day by Afghanistan-based NATO helicopters targeting a remote border outpost.
The Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province has long been suspected of having been used to carry out U.S. drone attacks. In recent months, conflicting accounts have been made about the current presence of U.S. personnel at the base.
After a meeting of the Defense Coordination Committee (or DCC) of the Pakistani cabinet, a late evening announcement by the foreign ministry said that the U.S. had been given 15 days to vacate the base. The DCC meeting also ratified a decision earlier in the day to shut down all supply routes for trucks passing through Pakistan to Western troops in Afghanistan.
In separate assessments of the decision on Shamsi Air Base, Western and Pakistani officials said its closure may not jeopardize the drone program operated by the CIA which has successfully targeted hundreds of Islamic militants in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Still, there were warnings that Pakistan's decision will mark a significant symbolic setback surrounding relations between Washington and Islamabad.
"As far as I know, the drone program which is run by the CIA is operated from locations in Afghanistan and not Shamsi any longer," said one senior Western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity. "The Shamsi Air Base decision will be seen as a significant symbolic setback to the U.S.-Pak relations," he added.
A senior Pakistani government official who also spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said that the decision indicated rapidly mounting anger among Pakistan's civil and military leaders.
"I think the feeling is clearly 'enough is enough,'" said the Pakistani official. "It doesn't matter if the Shamsi base is an active staging post for drone attacks or not. Pakistan's protest must be recorded as much as possible."
A Pakistani cabinet minister who also spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity, however, warned that the attack that killed Pakistani soldiers earlier on Saturday "had in fact violated a very firm red line drawn by Pakistan. The decision by the Pakistani government is that we must all take a stand, because the killing of our soldiers in cold blood is just not acceptable."