Pakistan political party ends NATO supply blockade

RIAZ KHAN Associated Press Published:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) -- The ruling political party of Pakistan's northwest said Thursday it ended a more than three-month blockade of a NATO supply route to Afghanistan over contentious U.S. drone strikes in the country.

The Tehreek-e-Insaf party, led by cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, had been blocking the route since November to pressure Washington to end drone attacks targeting Islamic militants in northwest Pakistan. Khan himself has led these protests and has been a vocal critic of drone attacks in Pakistan.

In a statement, Khan's party said it ended the protest after seeing a change in U.S. drone policy. Their decision also comes days after a Pakistani court ordered authorities to end the blockade of transit goods into landlocked Afghanistan.

The party's top leadership also "felt that the pressure of the blockade had already resulted in a shift in the Obama administration's drone policy and as a result drones had been stopped for the present," the statement read. It also said it ended the protest to respect the court order.

Party official Fiaz Ahmad Khalil said the blockade lasted 97 days.

"We are happy that the American government has stopped drone attacks, and we are also positively responding by ending our protest," Khalil said.

Khan's party launched the blockade after a U.S. drone strike in November killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Mehsud, who was on U.S. most-wanted terrorist lists with a $5 million bounty, was believed to have been behind a deadly suicide attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan, a failed car bombing in New York's Times Square and other brazen assaults in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and security forces.

But his killing came as Pakistan was preparing to start peace talks with militants, enraging its government and the population.

There was no immediate comment Thursday from the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which has also opposed the drone strikes, calling them counterproductive and violations of the country's sovereignty. However, Pakistan's government is known to have supported at least some of the attacks in the past.

Khan's party had blocked a route from the northwestern city of Peshawar, one of several overland routes used by NATO for getting vital supplies into Afghanistan. These routes are now generally used to ship equipment out of Afghanistan as the U.S. seeks to withdraw most of its combat troops from the country by the end of 2014.

The routes have been closed in the past. Pakistan blocked the routes for seven months following U.S. airstrikes that accidentally killed two dozen soldiers on the Afghan border in November 2011. It finally reopened the routes after the U.S. apologized.