The U.S. has struck deals with Russia and neighboring countries allowing it to transport supplies to American troops in Afghanistan through their territory, the head of U.S. Central Command said Tuesday.
Most supplies for U.S. and NATO troops must first pass through northern Pakistan via the Arabian Sea port of Karachi, a treacherous route sometimes closed because of attacks by Islamist militants.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani army said it killed 60 militants in a stepped-up offensive close to the Afghan border, a lawless region considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. Washington has long urged Islamabad to take the fight to the insurgents sheltering there.
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Opening up supply lines in the north is seen as especially important now because the United States is expected to nearly double its number of troops in Afghanistan to 60,000 over the coming year to battle a growing Taliban insurgency.
"It is very important as we increase the effort in Afghanistan that we have multiple routes that go into the country," U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told reporters while visiting Pakistan.
"We have sought additional logistical routes into Afghanistan from the north. There have been agreements reached, and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several of the countries in the Central Asian states and also Russia."
Petraeus said he had reached transit deals with Russia and several other Central Asian states on a recent tour of the region. He gave few details, but NATO and U.S. officials have often said they were close to inking agreements with those countries to open up supply lines.
Afghan-based U.S. and NATO forces get up to 75 percent of their "non-lethal" supplies such as food, fuel and building materials via routes that traverse Pakistan, a volatile, nuclear-armed country.
Analysts say the dependence on Pakistan presents a problem for Washington because it means it cannot push Islamabad too hard on issues of bilateral concern, such as terrorism.
Possible routes cited
U.S. officials have said that one likely route is overland from Russia through Kazakhstan and on through Uzbekistan using trucks and trains. Another possible route is via Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to the Kazakh port of Aktau and then through Uzbekistan.
Few analysts expect Washington to abandon the Pakistan routes, unless they become impossible to traverse due to security concerns, because they are the shortest and cheapest lines.
Petraeus met with Pakistan's army chief, prime minister and president on the trip.
Washington and other Western allies are trying to keep Pakistan focused on the al-Qaida threat as well as defuse tensions with neighboring India over the November terror attacks in Mumbai.
The offensive was taking place in Mohmand tribal area, where militants are believed to have fled in recent months from a major army operation in neighboring Bajur region, an army statement said.
It said "60 hardcore militants were killed in the last 24 hours," including at least four people identified as commanders. Jet fighters and artillery were used in the attack, said a government official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
It was not possible to independently verify the account of the fighting in the region, where violence bars most outsiders from visiting.
Alleged U.S. spies killed
Also Tuesday, police said suspected Taliban militants killed six alleged U.S. spies in a lawless region of northwest Pakistan where American missile attacks have reportedly killed several al-Qaida leaders in recent months.
Analysts speculate Pakistan and Washington have a secret deal allowing the missile strikes, but Pakistan routinely issues public protests against them, saying they inflame anti-American sentiment and violate Pakistani sovereignty.
A tribal police official, Sharif Ullah, said the bodies of the six accused spies were found at two militant strongholds in the North Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border early Tuesday.
Five Pakistani men were shot to death in the town of Miran Shah, while the sixth man — an Afghan national — had been hanged from a tree in the town Mir Ali, he said.
Ullah said notes pinned to the bodies accused them of passing on information to Americans in exchange for money and threatened other informers with the same fate.
Militants in North Waziristan have killed at least 19 people they accused of spying for the U.S. since mid-December, including the new victims. Ullah said killings of accused spies were growing in scope.
Also Tuesday, a bomb wounded five police officers in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.
Police official Mohammed Ashraf said the blast hit a police vehicle when it stopped on a road in Peshawar.
Unidentified assailants planted the bomb in a section of gas pipeline under construction, he said, adding the possibility of a gas explosion had been ruled out.