WASHINGTON: US military's top officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said on Thursday that Pakistan's government may have sanctioned the killing of a Pakistani journalist, voicing grave concern over the attack.
Asked about media reports that Islamabad sanctioned or approved the killing of the reporter, he said: "I haven't seen anything that would disabuse that report."
He said he was concerned about the incident and suggested other reporters had suffered a similar fate in the past.
"His (death) isn't the first. For whatever reason, it has been used as a method historically," Mullen told reporters at a Pentagon Press Association event.
While acknowledging that Pakistani officials have denied the government had any role in the death of Saleem Shahzad, Mullen said the episode raised worrying questions about the country's current course.
"It's not a way to move ahead. It's a way to continue to quite frankly spiral in the wrong direction," said Mullen, who has held numerous meetings with Pakistani counterparts during his tenure as chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mullen's remarks are sure to aggravate already strained relations between the uneasy allies after the US raid north of Islamabad in May that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden,
The New York Times, citing US officials, had reported on Monday that the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency ordered the killing of Shahzad to muzzle criticism.
The ISI has vehemently dismissed such reports as "baseless" allegations.
Shahzad, who worked for an Italian news agency and a Hong Kong-registered news site and had reported about Islamist militants infiltrating the military, went missing en route to a television talk show and his body was found May 31 south of the capital, bearing marks of torture.
Shahzad disappeared two days after writing an investigative report in Asia Times Online saying Al-Qaeda carried out a recent attack on a naval air base to avenge the arrest of naval officials held on suspicion of Al-Qaeda links.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had ordered an inquiry into the kidnapping and murder, pledging that the culprits would be brought to book.
Citing mounting tensions over the past year, Mullen said the relationship with Pakistan is under extraordinary pressure.
Even before the unilateral Bin Laden raid, ties had become strained, Mullen said, particularly over the arrest of a CIA contractor in Pakistan who was charged with double murder before eventually being released.
"So we've been through a very, very rough time. Washington was committed to sustaining that relationship, but we recognize it's under great stress right now and we need to see our way through it," he said.
The military's top-ranking officer, who is due to step down at the end of September after four years, also said that the US military presence in Pakistan had been dramatically scaled back at Islamabad's request.
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