The US demanded the immediate release of a US official arrested in the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis, upping the stakes on Saturday in a spat that has revealed the fragility of a relationship Washington believes is crucial for success in Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda.
The US embassy in Pakistan said the man had a diplomatic passport and was immune from prosecution. It accused the Pakistani police of illegally detaining him. The mission said the man, who the US has not named, acted in self-defense against two armed men who approached his car in the city of Lahore on Thursday, intent on robbing him.
Rana Sanaullah, the law minister in Punjab Province where the killings took place, said the American’s fate would be decided in the courts. He said the provincial government could not free him even if directed to by the central government.
“It is for the court to decide whether someone having a diplomatic passport is allowed to kill someone,” he said. “If the -American government wants to get him released, it will have to plead before the court.”
Allowing the American to return home without facing trial could spark a potentially destabilizing backlash against the government, which is already weak and accused by critics of being subservient to the US. The killings in Lahore have been seized on by many in Pakistan as fresh evidence of the US’ malign intent in the region.
Many here don’t trust the government in its dealings with Washington, a legacy of its stance on US drone strikes in the northwest against militants. The attacks are unpopular among many Pakistanis and Islamabad publicly protests them. However, the country’s leaders are widely believed to agree to the attacks and even provide intelligence on some of them.
“This is a test case for our rulers,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of an Islamist party that recently pulled out of the governing coalition. “A foreigner, an American cannot be allowed to shed blood this way. The matter is in the court. The facts will be revealed there.”
The man was taken into custody soon after the shooting and appeared in court on Friday for an initial hearing. US officials were granted access to him only late the same day, soon after prosecutors said they would pursue possible murder charges against him.
The US embassy statement made it clear Washington did not want to see him brought before a Pakistani judge again.
“The United States Embassy in Pakistan calls for the immediate release” of the diplomat, it said.
The embassy statement did not answer all the questions that have swirled around the incident, including what the American did at the mission and why he was carrying a gun. The lack of clarity has fueled media speculation he may have been a CIA agent or a security contractor, as well as -questions over whether he qualified for diplomatic immunity.
US embassy spokeswoman Courtney Beale said only that the detained man was “a member of the administrative and technical staff.”
Separately, a senior US official said that the man was authorized by the US to carry a weapon, but that it was a “gray area” whether Pakistani law permitted him to do so.
A third man died when he was allegedly hit by a US car that rushed to the scene to help the US official. The statement did not refer to that incident. Pakistani police have said they want to question the driver of that vehicle as well.
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