Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan on Friday cast doubt on a statement made by the defence minister that the US had been asked to vacate the airbase in Balochistan used to launch drone strikes against suspected militants in the country.
Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told a group of journalists on Wednesday that Pakistan had asked Washington to leave Shamsi airbase. Mukhtar told Reuters on Thursday that Islamabad had been pressing the US to leave the base even before the May 2 incursion in Abbottabad. After the raid, Mukhtar said: “We told them again.”
On Friday, the government tried to put the confusing story to rest. “It’s just a statement for the media,” Awan told a media gathering in Lahore, dismissing Mukhtar’s comments. “I am also a member of the defence committee and the matter was not discussed there.”
Reacting to Mukhtar’s earlier statement, US officials in Washington said there was no plan to evacuate the base. “That base is neither vacated nor being vacated,” said a US official familiar with the matter, asking for anonymity to discuss the sensitive information. The information was confirmed by a second US official.
Addressing the media at the Lahore Press Club, the information minister added that in case of any development, the matter would have to be placed before the defence cabinet committee (DCC), and since she was a member of the DCC, the issue would ultimately be brought to her knowledge, but nothing of the sort had surfaced yet. However, the minister categorically said that the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the defence minister were there to look into the matter.
Responding to a question regarding the MQM quitting the federal as well as provincial governments, and the possibility of it rejoining the alliance, Awan said that President Asif Ali Zardari was out of the country and a final strategy would be devised after his return. “However, in my personal opinion, the MQM will take the decision of remaining in the government or quitting the ruling alliance keeping in view party interests,” she said.
She refuted the impression that people would not benefit from the 18th amendment, since with the devolution of ministries to provinces, the issues of the public would be resolved at the local level.
WITH ADDITONAL INPUT FROM REUTERS
Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2011.
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