US complains of Pakistan harassment at checkpoints

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan has complained that its diplomats are being harassed and detained at checkpoints as they travel to development projects, illustrating heightened tensions between the allies as America expands its presence here.

The rare public protest reflects the rising frustration among U.S. officials over alleged Pakistani efforts to stymie Washington’s moves to add hundreds more staff and more space to its embassy in Islamabad.

U.S. officials say they need more room and people to help disburse a $7.5 billion humanitarian aid package to Pakistan, whose cooperation Washington needs to fight al-Qaida-allied militants along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

But suspicion of U.S. motives abounds among Pakistanis: Many believe the U.S. is simply flooding the country with more spies whose ultimate aim is destabilizing Pakistan and taking over its nuclear program.

In recent weeks, American diplomats have faced lengthy delays in receiving approvals for visas and visa extensions. Some also have been stopped at checkpoints by police who have in a couple of cases temporarily confiscated their vehicles. Some of the incidents have been publicized in the Pakistani press.

On Wednesday, two Pakistani employees of a U.S. consulate and their police escort were detained while traveling in Baluchistan province in the country’s southwest to prepare for a visit involving a development project, the embassy statement said. It called upon Pakistani officials “to cease these contrived incidents involving U.S. mission vehicles and personnel.”

The statement also quoted U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson as pushing Pakistan to implement an agreement to identify diplomatic vehicles in a safe manner.

The agreement lets those vehicles carry normal Pakistani license plates on the outside — so as not to be identified as U.S. vehicles and be easily targeted by militants — while carrying special diplomatic plates inside to show police at checkpoints, embassy spokesman Rick Snelsire said.

“There was an agreement on that,” Snelsire said. “We’re waiting for the agreement to be implemented.”

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry’s spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Snelsire said U.S. Embassy employees were still experiencing delays in visa approvals, despite appeals to Pakistani authorities.

“They don’t tend to reject visas; they just don’t issue them,” Snelsire said. “We’re still working on refining the process.”

Foreigners coming to work in Pakistan are often subject to background checks by multiple ministries and agencies, including Pakistan’s powerful intelligence apparatus.

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad has plans to go from about 500 American employees to more than 800 over the next 18 months, largely to accommodate the aid package, which provides $1.5 billion annually over five years for economic and social programs.

The package is designed to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian government and comes as a string of violent militant attacks have rocked the country — apparent retaliation for its anti-Taliban army offensives.

The package’s requirements for accounting and oversight have rankled Pakistanis including top brass in the army, an institution that has ruled the country for about half its 62-year existence.