Pakistan says the U.S. military has vacated an air base in the country’s southwest, meeting a deadline set by the Pakistani government in response to a NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last month.
The Pakistani military says it took over the Shamsi base in Baluchistan province on Sunday, as the last flight carrying U.S. personnel and equipment departed. U.S. media say the U.S. military had used the base as part of a years-long drone offensive against al-Qaida and Taliban militants along the Pakistani-Afghan border. There was no immediate confirmation of the base withdrawal from U.S. officials.
The Pakistani government ordered the United States to vacate the base by December 11 as part of several punitive measures reflecting Pakistani anger about the November 26 NATO strikes that killed the soldiers. Islamabad also closed its border crossings to trucks delivering supplies to NATO forces in land-locked Afghanistan and boycotted a December 5 international conference on stabilizing its western neighbor.
U.S. officials have denied Pakistani accusations that NATO warplanes deliberately targeted the Pakistani soldiers during an operation against militants on the border of Afghanistan’s Kunar province and Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region. The U.S. military and NATO have launched investigations of the incident and U.S. President Barack Obama has offered condolences to Pakistan for the soldiers’ deaths.
U.S. intelligence experts say the withdrawal from the Shamsi air base is not likely to have a major impact on the drone war in the border region because the U.S. military still can fly the unmanned planes out of air fields in Afghanistan.
In another development, two prominent Pakistani Taliban members have denied a claim by one of the group’s commanders that the militant group is engaged in peace talks with the Pakistani government.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsansullah Ehsan and commander Mullah Dadullah told the agency that no such talks are under way.
The Pakistani Taliban’s deputy chief Maulvi Faqir Mohammad had announced Saturday that negotiations with the government were progressing well and could soon lead to an agreement. Mohammad’s fighters operate in Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal region.
Pakistani Taliban members’ conflicting statements about peace talks appeared to reflect a split within the group, whose command structure is unclear. The Pakistani government has not confirmed any negotiations with the militants blamed for much of the country’s deadly violence in recent years, but officials have spoken of a need for dialogue.
The United States has long pressured Pakistan, a major U.S. aid recipient, to fight the Islamist militants who use bases in Pakistani tribal regions to attack U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.