PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN // Hundreds of lorries carrying supplies to US-led troops in Afghanistan backed up at closed Pakistani border crossings yesterday, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by militants.
Islamabad closed the frontier the day before in retaliation for coalition air strikes that allegedly killed 24 Pakistani troops.
As the Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, attended the funerals of the victims, including a major, the US sought to minimise the fallout from the crisis, which plunged Washington's already troubled relationship with Islamabad to an all-time low.
Pakistan also ordered the US to vacate an airbase used by American drones to target Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the tribal region along the Afghan border.
The US has relied heavily on drone strikes in the past few years, partly out of frustration with Pakistan's refusal to target militants using its territory to stage attacks against US and Nato troops in Afghanistan.
There are forces working against a total rupture in the relationship. Pakistan still relies on billions of dollars in American military and civilian aid, while the US needs Islamabad's help to push Afghan insurgents to engage in peace talks.
But tensions could rise further if militants attack the stranded lorries ferrying Nato supplies.
Suspected insurgents destroyed about 150 lorries and injured drivers and police a year ago after Pakistan closed one of its Afghan border crossings to Nato supplies for about 10 days.
The move was in retaliation for a US helicopter attack that accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers.
The situation could be more dire this time because Pakistan, outraged at the alleged Nato attack before dawn on Saturday, has closed both its crossings.
Nearly 300 lorries carrying coalition supplies were backed up at Torkham in the north-west Khyber tribal area and Chaman in south-western Baluchistan province.
Last year, Pakistan only closed Torkham.
"We are worried," said Saeed Khan, a driver stranded near the border. "This area is always vulnerable to attacks. Sometimes rockets are lobbed at us. Sometimes we are targeted by bombs."
Mr Khan and hundreds of other drivers and their assistants barely slept on Saturday because they were worried about potential attacks, he said.
Some drivers said Pakistan had sent paramilitary troops to protect their convoys since the closures, but others were left without any additional help.
Even those who did receive guards did not feel safe.
"If there is an attack, what can five or six troops do? Nothing," said Niamatullah Khan, a fuel lorry driver who was parked with 35 other vehicles at a restaurant about 200 kilometres from Chaman.
Nato ships nearly 50 per cent of its non-lethal supplies to its troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan.
The lorries are periodically targeted by suspected militants as they travel through the country and their drivers are sometimes killed.
Nato has said these attacks do not significantly affect its ability to keep its troops supplied.