Sunday, December 11, 2011

U.S. Vacates Air Base in Pakistan: Officials

QUETTA, Pakistan - The United States vacated a Pakistani airbase following a deadline given by Islamabad in the wake of anger over NATO air strikes last month that killed 24 soldiers, officials said Dec. 11.
A U.S. AIR Force plane carrying U.S. personnel and equipment prepare to take off from Pakistan's Shamsi airbase on Dec. 11. (Inter Services Public Relations via AFP)
Pakistan's military said in a statement that the last flight carrying U.S. personnel and equipment had left Shamsi airbase, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, completing a process that began last week.
Islamabad's fragile alliance with the United States crashed to new lows in the wake of the Nov. 26 NATO air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and which the Pakistan military called a deliberate attack.
The base was widely believed to have been used in covert CIA drone attacks against the Taliban and al-Qaida commanders in northwest Pakistan's tribal areas, which border Afghanistan.
"The control of the base has been taken over by the Army," the statement said.
A senior security official requesting anonymity earlier told AFP: "The Americans have vacated the Shamsi air base and it has been handed over to the Pakistani security forces."
Another official in Baluchistan confirmed that the last batch of U.S. officials left in two flights on Dec. 11.
Following the November air strikes, Pakistan closed two border crossings to Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO supplies and gave American personnel until Dec. 11 to leave Shamsi airbase.
U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad Cameron Munter told a Pakistan television channel last week: "We are complying with the request."
A security official said the U.S. aircraft left the Pakistani airfield around 3:00 pm with the remaining group of 32 U.S. officials and material.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 4 expressed condolences to Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari for the soldier deaths and said the NATO airstrikes that killed them were not a "deliberate attack."
But the incident has rocked Washington's alliance with its counter terrorism ally Islamabad, though officials say neither country can afford a complete break in relations.
U.S. officials and intelligence analysts have said the covert drone war would not be affected by the closure of the base as Washington could fly Predator and Reaper drones out of air fields in neighboring Afghanistan. But the Shamsi air base was supposed to be particularly useful for flights hampered by poor weather conditions.
Islamabad has tacitly consented to the covert U.S. drone campaign, which many Pakistanis see as a violation of their country's sovereignty.
Nearly half of all cargo bound for NATO-led forces runs through Pakistan. Roughly 140,000 foreign troops, including about 97,000 Americans, rely on supplies from outside Afghanistan for the decade-long war effort.
Pakistan has shut off the border over previous incidents, partly to allay popular outrage, but the latest closure had entered a third week.
Islamabad has so far refused to take part in a U.S. investigation into the deadly November air strikes, and decided to boycott the Bonn Conference on the future of Afghanistan earlier this month.

Berlin to Start Afghan Troop Pull-Out in Februaryger

BERLIN - Germany, which has over 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, will withdraw 200 soldiers at the start of February, a German weekly reported Dec. 11.
Germany plans to whittle its forces in Afghanistan to 4,900 next year against 5,350 at present. The NATO-led forces are due to be pulled out in 2014.
Berlin is drawing up its withdrawal plans, which will start on Feb. 1 and involve 200 troops, Bild am Sonntag said, without naming any sources.
Germany, which has the third-biggest force in Afghanistan behind the United States and Britain, said at the start of the year that it aimed to begin pulling its military forces out, eyeing 2014 for complete withdrawal.
Polls have shown the mission, the first major Bundeswehr deployment outside of Europe since World War II, has been consistently unpopular in the country.

5,000 Surface-to-Air Missiles Secured in Libya

SIDI BIN NUR, Libya - A top U.S. official said Dec. 11 that a team of U.S. and Libyan bomb-disposal specialists has secured about 5,000 surface-to-air missiles stockpiled during the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
"We have identified, disbanded and secured more than 5,000 MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems), while thousands more have been destroyed during NATO bombing," Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs told a group of reporters.
Dozens of these missiles were detonated in the sea, off the coast of Sidi Bin Nur village, east of Tripoli, as Shapiro, one a one-day visit to Libya, witnessed the event from the shore.
A joint U.S. and Libyan team of bomb-disposal experts has been working for several months now to find these missing missiles which are seen as potential threat to civil aviation. Gadhafi had a stockpile of 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles before the revolt against him broke out in February.
"We are working side by side with the TNC to reduce the threat of these loose weapons," Shapiro said after talks in Tripoli with officials from the ruling National Transitional Council, the interior and defense ministries.
There is a "serious concern about the threat posed by MANPADS ... about the potential threat MANPADS can pose to civil aviation. However our efforts witht he NTC to reduce these threats are already paying off."
Shapiro said contractors on the ground were still in the process of assessing how many missiles are still missing. Libya, under Gadhafi, was reportedly the country with the biggest stock of MANPADS outside of nations that produce these weapons.
The missiles, mainlySAM-7, were acquired in the 1970s and 1980s.
Shapiro said the United States has already spent $6 million in its efforts to secure these weapons.

NATO Denies Iraq Report of Withdrawal: Official

BRUSSELS - NATO denied an assertion by Iraq's national security advisor on Dec. 11 that it had decided to withdraw its mission there at the end of the year after Baghdad refused to grant it legal immunity.
"There hasn't been a decision yet," an official at NATO headquarters in Brussels said, while acknowledging that the question of the mission's legal standing was an issue.
"When they ask us to extend the mission, we need to see that the same legal framework will extend as well," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"We remain hopeful that a solution will be found and that we'll be able to say yes to the Iraqi request to extend our mission, based on the legal framework that we (have) had since 2009," the official added.
The official was responding to remarks earlier on Dec. 11 by Iraq's National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayadh who said the decision had already been taken, because Baghdad had refused to grant the force legal immunity.
The failure to agree on immunity from prosecution closely mirrors Iraq's refusal to grant U.S. soldiers similar protections earlier this year.
That sank a potential deal between the two countries to keep U.S. soldiers in the country beyond the end of the year.