US lawmakers freeze $700 mln to Pakistan, ties strained

ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – A U.S. Congressional  panel has frozen $700 million in aid to Pakistan until it gives  assurances it is helping fight the spread of homemade bombs in  the region, a move one Pakistani senator called unwise and  likely to strain ties further.

Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign  aid and the cutback announced is only a small proportion of the  billions in civil and military assistance it gets each year.

But it could presage even greater cuts. The aid freeze  targets funds used to fight Taliban insurgents.

Calls are growing in the United States to penalise Islamabad  for failing to act against militant groups and, at worst,  helping them, after the secret U.S. raid on a Pakistan garrison  town in which al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in May.

Salim Saifullah, chairman of Pakistan’s Senate foreign  relations committee, warned that relations, which are already at  a low point, could worsen further following the decision by the  U.S. House-Senate panel.

“I don’t think this is a wise move. It could hurt ties.  There should instead be efforts to increase cooperation. I don’t  see any good coming out of this,” Saifullah told Reuters.

Homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), are  among militants’ most effective weapons against U.S. and  coalition troops in Afghanistan as they struggle to fight a  resurgent Taliban insurgency.

Many are made using ammonium nitrate, a common fertiliser  smuggled across the border from Pakistan.

The freeze on U.S. aid was agreed as part of a defence bill  that is expected to be passed this week.

The United States wants “assurances that Pakistan is  countering improvised explosive devices in their country that  are targeting our coalition forces”, Representative Howard  McKeon, a House Republican, told reporters.

The United States has allocated some $20 billion in security  and economic aid to Pakistan since 2001, much of it in the form  of reimbursements for assistance in fighting militants.
But U.S. lawmakers have ex
pressed increasing frustration  with Pakistan’s efforts in the war.

There have been many proposals to make U.S. aid to Pakistan  conditional on more cooperation in fighting militants such as  the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, which Washington believes  operates out of Pakistan and battles U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

But Pakistan’s civilian leaders have in the past warned  against aid cuts, saying it would only harden public opinion  against the United States.

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