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Pakistan army chief calls special meeting of top commanders

Sep 24, 2011, 11:50 p.m.
Pakistan's Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani (R) listens to U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen at the start of the NATO MC conference in Seville September 16, 2011. REUTERS/Javier Diaz

By Zeeshan Haider

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's powerful army chief General Ashfaq Kayani on Sunday called a "special" meeting of his top commanders to discuss the security situation, the military said, as the war of words with the United States escalated.

The extraordinary meeting of the corps commanders came against the backdrop of sharp U.S. allegations that Pakistan army's powerful spy agency supported the Haqqani militant group Washington blames for the recent attack on its embassy and other targets in Kabul.

In a terse two-line statement, the military said the commanders would "review (the) prevailing security situation."

Kayani, who is departing for London later tonight to address the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Royal College of Defense Studies, is chairing the meeting.

"The meeting reflects the gravity of crisis," retired general, turned security analyst, Talat Masood said.

"They will issue a statement to express solidarity (within the military) and to show that they all are on one page."

The corps commanders meeting comes a day after Kayani met with U.S. CENTCOM commander General James N. Mattis in Pakistan, but military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said the two meetings were "unrelated."

CONTACTS WITH HAQQANIS

In an interview with CNN, Abbas acknowledged that army's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) maintained contacts with the Haqqani network, but said that didn't mean it supported it.

"Any intelligence agency would like to maintain contact with whatever opposition group, whatever terrorist organization ... for some positive outcome," he told CNN in a telephone interview.

However, he said there was a huge difference between maintaining those contacts to facilitate peace and supporting it against an ally.

In the most blunt remarks by a U.S. official since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led war on militancy in 2001, the outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, on Thursday testified before the U.S. Senate that the Haqqani militant network is a "veritable arm" of the ISI.

He also for the first time held Islamabad responsible for the Kabul attack, saying Pakistan provided support for that assault.

The Haqqani network is the most violent and effective faction among Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

On Saturday night, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani rejected U.S. allegations as a sign of American "confusion and policy disarray."

"We strongly reject assertions of complicity with the Haqqanis or of proxy war," Gilani said, breaking off from a speech to aid agencies and foreign diplomats on the country's flood disaster.

Although Pakistan officially abandoned support for the Taliban after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001 and allied itself with Washington's "war on terror," analysts say elements of the ISI refused to make the doctrinal shift.

Gilani's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Washington on Friday that it risked losing an ally if it kept accusing Islamabad of playing a double game in the war against militancy, and escalating a crisis in ties triggered by U.S. forces' killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in an unannounced raid in May.

Security analyst Masood said the sharpened rhetoric between Pakistan and the United States could lead to a "collision."

One of the options for Pakistan, he said, could be to put pressure on Haqqani fighters to leave Pakistan to avert a confrontation.

"I think both Pakistan and the United States will step back to avoid making things worse."

(Additional reporting and Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ed Lane)

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