KARACHI // Heavily armed gunmen in Pakistan set ablaze more than two dozen trucks and tankers carrying fuel and supplies for Nato forces in Afghanistan, one day after Pakistan closed the border to the convoys.
The pre-dawn attack, which employed rocket launchers and assault rifles, was the biggest of its kind in southern Pakistan. Ambushes of Nato convoys are not uncommon, but are normally concentrated in strongholds of Islamist militants in the northwest.
Towering walls of flame engulfed the vehicles, which had been parked behind a petrol station on the highway leading north from Karachi, the port where Nato supplies are offloaded for the long road trip through Pakistan. The police chief of Shikarpur district, Abdul Hameed Khoso, told AFP: "Around 20 attackers armed with rocket launchers and assault rifles attacked these trucks. They set ablaze 27 trucks parked there."
Police said they had picked up around 10 suspects and were scouring the area for leads after the attack, which has shocked the south. A Sindh provincial government spokesman, Jamil Soomro, said: "This is the first major attack on NATO trucks in Sindh." Mr Khoso said. "We suspect that some elements belonging to extremist organisations are behind the attack, who want to disrupt peace." Taliban and Al Qa'eda-linked militants have been blamed for attacks that have killed more than 3,700 people across Pakistan in revenge for the government's alliance with the United States in the war in Afghanistan and on militancy.
The militants have carved out bases in border areas with Afghanistan that lie outside direct government control and which Washington considers an Al Qa'eda headquarters and possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden. The region is being subject to a huge increase in US missile strikes and was reportedly where Al Qa'eda hatched a plot to attack cities in Britain, France and Germany uncovered by Western intelligence agencies.
Four cross-border raids by Nato helicopters based in Afghanistan have been reported in the tribal belt in the past week. On Thursday Pakistan lodged protests with the visiting CIA chief, Leon Panetta. President Asif Ali Zardari said:"The government of Pakistan strongly disapproves any incident of violation of its sovereignty. Any violation of internationally agreed principles is counter-productive and unacceptable."
Pakistan shut the main land route for Nato supplies into Afghanistan after the military accused alliance helicopters of killing three Pakistani soldiers early Thursday in the Kurram district. Officials said the route remained blocked today and that no Nato supplies were being allowed to enter Afghanistan for the second consecutive day through the Torkham border crossing in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber district.
An administrative official at Torkham told AFP: "Trucks carrying fuel and other goods for Nato are still not allowed to enter Afghanistan." A security official in the northwestern city of Peshawar said no orders had been received to restore the supplies for Nato. US officials say they are hopeful that they can resolve the issue in talks with Pakistani counterparts. Senator John Kerry, one of the architects of a $7.5 billion US aid package for Pakistan, spoke to Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani by telephone and afterwards told AFP: "I think we will work through this. Obviously they are concerned, and ought to be, when there is collateral damage. We need to try to avoid it, and we do."
Nato confirmed its aircraft entered Pakistani airspace and killed "several armed individuals", but said crews acted in self-defence after believing they had been fired at from the ground.