US defence secretary Chuck Hagel arrives in Pakistan for talks

US-Pakistan relationship strained amid protests over drone strikes which have halted US shipments from Afghanistan

The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, has arrived in Pakistan for meetings with the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the nation’s new army chief, hoping to improve the strained relationship with Washington and Islamabad.

His visit follows the latest interruption of US military shipments out of Afghanistan through the main border crossings into Pakistan. Anti-American protests along the route in Pakistan prompted the US to stop the shipments from Torkham Gate through Karachi last week, due to safety concerns.

The protests centre on the CIA’s drone programme, which has killed many terrorists but has also caused civilian casualties. Pakistan has called the drone attacks a violation of the country’s sovereignty, but Islamabad and the Pakistani military have supported at least some of the strikes in the past.

Shireen Mazari, the information secretary for the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, said in a statement on Monday that the government should demand an end to the drone attacks.

The Pakistani government blocked the routes for seven months following US air strikes that accidentally killed two dozen soldiers on the Afghan border in November 2011. Pakistan finally reopened the routes after the US apologised.

The rift led the US to sever most aid to Pakistan, but relations were restored in July 2012. Since then, the US has delivered more than $1.15bn (£700m) in security assistance to Pakistan, including advanced communications equipment, roadside bomb jammers, night vision goggles and surveillance aircraft.

A senior defence official said these issues would be discussed at Hagel’s meetings, and acknowledged the lingering tensions between the two countries. Over the past year, relations between Washington and Islamabad have improved, and Sharif met President Barack Obama and Hagel in late October in Washington.

Hagel is expected to tell Pakistani leaders that the US wants the border crossings to remain open, said the defence official.

The US has also been frustrated by Pakistan’s unwillingness to target the Haqqani terrorist network, which operates along the border and conducts attacks on US and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Defence officials said Hagel was the first high-ranking US official to meet General Raheel Sharif, who took over as head of Pakistan’s powerful army at the end of last month.

Following their meeting in Rawalpindi, Hagel and Sharil echoed each other’s desire to work to strengthen the countries’ relationship.

The last Pentagon chief to visit Pakistan was Robert Gates in January 2010.

Hagel flew to Pakistan from Afghanistan, where he visited American troops but declined to meet President Hamid Karzai, who has irritated the US by refusing to sign a security agreement before the end of the year. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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