(CBS/AP) ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's foreign minister indicated Monday the time has come to reopen the country's Afghan border to NATO troop supplies, saying the government had made its point by closing the route for nearly six months in retaliation for deadly U.S. airstrikes on its troops.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's comments offered the clearest indication yet that Pakistan is ready to give in to U.S. pressure to reopen the supply line, even though Washington has so far refused to apologize for last year's attack and end drone strikes in the country as demanded by Pakistan's parliament.
The Pakistani government is likely to face domestic backlash for reopening the NATO route given rampant anti-American sentiment in the country and vocal opposition to the move by hardline Islamists and their political allies still angry the U.S. killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Washington says the November attack was an accident.
But there could be clear benefits to reopening the route as well.
Pakistan is keen to attend a NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21 that will largely focus on the Afghan war, and an invitation is likely contingent on the country allowing troop supplies to resume. The move could also free up over a billion dollars in U.S. military aid that has been frozen for the last year.
"It was important to make a point, Pakistan has made a point and now we can move on," Khar said during a press conference in Islamabad when asked whether she believed Pakistan should reopen the supply route.
A team of U.S. negotiators has been in the country for several weeks working out the nuts and bolts of a potential agreement to reopen the supply line, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The Americans met with their Pakistani counterparts all day Sunday and were scheduled to resume discussions Monday, the official said.
Pakistan's parliament demanded an "unconditional apology" for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers and an end to U.S. drone strikes in the country. Although it did not explicitly link these issues to reopening the supply line, they have complicated matters since the U.S. has refused both demands.
Analysts have speculated that the Obama administration is reluctant to apologize for the errant airstrikes because of potential criticism from Congress and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney. Anger at Pakistan is high in the U.S. because of the country's alleged support for Islamist militants killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have said in private that they have no intention of stopping covert CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, which they see as key to targeting militants in the country who pose a threat to the West. The strikes are immensely unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, allegations disputed by the U.S. and independent research.
The issue is complicated by the fact that Pakistan is widely believed to have supported some of the strikes in the past, although that cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the Washington and Islamabad has deteriorated.