WASHINGTON: Pakistan has returned to the United States wreckage of a US helicopter destroyed during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a Pentagon official said on Tuesday, but the gesture was expected to do little to improve strained ties.
The US Navy SEAL team that stormed bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2 blew up the chopper after it was damaged during a hard landing. They wanted keep sensitive US technology out of enemy hands.
However bits of the helicopter, including the tail section, remained behind and the United States demanded that Pakistan return them to US custody.
"It (the wreckage) was returned over the weekend and is now back in the United States," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.
The raid that killed bin Laden badly damaged US-Pakistan relations, and nagging questions remain in Washington about how bin Laden managed to go unnoticed for years in the garrison town of Abbottabad, only 30 miles (50 km) from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. Some US officials speculate he must have had support.
In turn, Pakistan has branded the raid a violation of its sovereignty, since Islamabad was not informed about the US operation until it was over. Pakistan's parliament has threatened to cut supply lines to US forces in Afghanistan if there are more military incursions.
Senator John Kerry, on his trip to Islamabad on May 16, described a Pakistani pledge to return the chopper's wreckage as one step needed to rebuild trust between the two countries which was badly damaged by the raid.
US had feared that parts of the advanced helicopter used in the raid could fall into Chinese hands. China is a close ally of Pakistan and relations between Pakistan and China have been rejuvenated with growing American distrust of its War on Terror ally.
Too little, too late?
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who had advised President Barack Obama on policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, said returning the helicopter fell far short of what it would take to mend frayed ties.
"It's too little, too late to change the downward spiral in US-Pakistani relations," Riedel said.
Even before bin Laden's death, bilateral ties had reached a low point over Pakistan's arrest of a CIA contractor and mounting US drone strikes in Pakistan's western regions.
The government of President Asif Ali Zardari, along with Pakistan's even more powerful military leaders, has denied any prior knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts.
But some US lawmakers were calling for a radical shift in US policy on Pakistan as officials brace themselves for possible revelations about Pakistani complicity in data seized from bin Laden's compound.
On Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged the "trust deficit" between the two countries. But he also said Pakistan was too important to walk away from.
"Pakistan is very important, not just because of Afghanistan but because of its nuclear weapons and because of the importance of stability in the subcontinent," Gates told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank. "So we need to keep working at this."
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