The strained ties between Pakistan and the United States eased yesterday as the Islamabad Government agreed to reopen a critical Nato supply line to Afghanistan.

The move came after Washington apologised for killing 24 of Pakistan's soldiers in an airstrike last November near the Afghan border.

The deal was finalised in a phone call from Hillary Clinton to her Pakistani opposite number, Hina Rabbani Khar, in which the Secretary of State expressed her regret at the incident.

"We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military," Clinton said in a statement on the conversation in which, she added, the two acknowledged "mistakes" that resulted in the loss of life.

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Pakistan closed the supply line in retaliation for the botched airstrike, forcing the US to use a longer route running through Central Asia, costing an extra US$100 million a month. The first trucks were expected to use the reopened route today, but Pentagon officials said it would be days before shipments returned to former levels.

With the US committed to withdrawing all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, its ability to use the Pakistan transit route had become essential. But the agreement did not come easily for either side, each suspicious of the other and mindful of domestic political pressures.

The White House initially resisted anything smacking of an apology, fearful of playing into Republican charges that President Barack Obama was failing to defend American interests, just as the 2012 election campaign moved towards its climax.

More fundamentally, many policymakers in Washington, pointing to the ties between elements of the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taleban, wonder aloud whether the country is a US ally at all.

Those doubts only intensified with the May 2011 US commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and the discovery that the al-Qaeda leader had been living for years in Abbottabad, just two hours' drive from Islamabad.

For Pakistan the same considerations apply, but in reverse. With anti-Americanism running high, the Pakistan Government could not do anything that could be construed as a concession to the US - especially after the bin Laden operation, seen as a humiliating violation of the country's sovereignty.

- Independent