ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Assailants launched two separate attacks on tankers carrying fuel for foreign troops in Afghanistan on Friday, showing the vulnerability of NATO supply lines a day after the Pakistani government itself shut one down.
The events stand to complicate a difficult war in Afghanistan, especially if the Torkham border crossing along the fabled Khyber Pass remains closed for long. They are a reminder of the leverage Pakistan has over the United States just as Washington seeks the help of its uncomfortable ally at a crucial point in the 9-year-long conflict.
Militant attacks on NATO convoys are quite common, but extremists in Pakistan are media-savvy and could be seeking to exploit an uncomfortable moment for NATO by stepping up their campaign.
Just after midnight, about 10 suspected militants attacked 27 tankers parked at an ordinary truck stop on the edge of Shikarpur town in Sindh province, far from the Afghan border. They forced the drivers to flee by firing in the air before setting them ablaze, said police officer Abdul Hamid Khoso.
A truck driver and his assistant were burned alive in the second attack on a single tanker in the parking lot of a restaurant in southeastern Baluchistan province, said police officer Mohammad Azam. He said “anti-state elements” were behind the attack. That term could refer to Islamist militants or separatist rebels active in the region.
Most of the attacks on the convoys are in the northwest, where militant influence is stronger.
Pakistani security forces provide guards for the trucks and tankers in the northwest, but generally do not do so in south and central Pakistan, where attacks are rarer. Pakistani security officials had warned after two alleged NATO helicopter incursions last weekend that they would stop providing protection to NATO convoys if it happened again.
They also highlight the importance of recently opened supply routes into landlocked Afghanistan through central Asian states to its north. Those routes are safer, but the Pakistani lines from the Arabian seaport of Karachi north to Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan are cheaper and account for most of NATO’s non-lethal supplies.
Pakistan shut down the Torkham border crossing — the most important NATO supply into Afghanistan — on Thursday in apparent protest of a NATO helicopter attack that killed three Pakistani soldiers on the frontier. It was the third such incursion into Pakistan in less than a week.
The other NATO supply line through Pakistan remained open — the Chaman crossing in Baluchistan, where it seemed likely the tankers were heading.