LAHORE, July 2 (Reuters) - Pakistan's information minister has cast doubt on statements made by the defence minister that the United States had been asked to vacate an air base used to launch drone strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan.
Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told a group of journalists on Wednesday that Pakistan had asked Washington to leave Shamsi Air Base in the remote southwest of the country, which had been provided to the United States after it launched a counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan in 2001.
Mukhtar told Reuters on Thursday that Islamabad had been pressuring the U.S. to leave the base even before the May 2 commando raid in which U.S. Navy Seal commandos killed Osama bin Laden. After the raid, Mukhtar said, “We told them again”.
On Friday, the Pakistani government tried to put the confusing story to rest. “It's just a statement for the media,” Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan told a media gathering in the eastern city of Lahore, dismissing Mukhtar's comments. “I am also a member of the defence committee and it has not been discussed there.”
Reacting to the Mukhtar's earlier statement, U.S. officials in Washington said there was no plan to evacuate the base. “That base is neither vacated nor being vacated,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive material. The information was confirmed by a second U.S. official.
The U.S. declaration that drone operations in Pakistan will continue unabated is the latest twist in a fraught relationship between security authorities in Washington and Islamabad, which has been under increasing strain for months.
Pakistani officials have frequently suggested Shamsi was on the verge of being shuttered, but most analysts consider those comments to be aimed at quieting domestic opposition to U.S. military operations using Pakistani soil.