ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan warned the United States on Tuesday to stop accusing it of playing a double game with Islamist militants and heaped praise on "all-weather friend" China.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, speaking exclusively to Reuters, said any unilateral military action by the United States to hunt down militants of the Haqqani network inside Pakistan would be a violation of his country's sovereignty.
However, he side-stepped questions on the tense relations with the United States and offered no indications of any steps Pakistan might take to soothe the fury in Washington.
The outgoing chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, last week described the Haqqani network, the most violent faction among Taliban militants in Afghanistan, as a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI spy agency and accused Islamabad of providing support for the group's Sept. 13 attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
"The negative messaging, naturally that is disturbing my people," Gilani said in the interview from his office in Islamabad. "If there is messaging that is not appropriate to our friendship, then naturally it is extremely difficult to convince my public. Therefore they should be sending positive messages."
Since Mullen's comments, Pakistan has launched a diplomatic counter-attack and attempted to drum up support from its strongest ally in the region, China. Pakistani officials have been heaping praise on China since its public security minister arrived in Islamabad on Monday for high-level talks.
"We are true friends and we count on each other," Gilani said in separate comments broadcast on television networks after talks with Meng Jianzhu on Tuesday.
The military, Pakistan's most powerful institution, said it appreciated Beijing's backing. Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani thanked Meng for China's "unwavering support."
China and Pakistan call each other "all-weather friends" and their close ties have been underpinned by long-standing wariness of their common neighbor, India, and a desire to hedge against U.S. influence across the region.
"They (the Pakistanis) are trying to use their diplomatic options as much as possible to defuse pressure on them. They hope China will help them in this crisis," said security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
Asked why the United States had suddenly ratcheted up its criticism of Pakistan, Gilani implied that it reflected Washington's frustration with the war in Afghanistan ahead of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country in 2014.
"Certainly they expected more results from Afghanistan, which they have not been able to achieve as yet," he said. "They have not achieved what they visualized."
Rejecting allegations that Islamabad was behind any violence across its border, he said: "It is in the interest of Pakistan to have a stable Afghanistan."
The White House on Tuesday reiterated military demands.
"The Pakistani government needs to take action to deal with the links that exist there," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Asked if Washington would take action if Pakistan fails to cut ties with the Haqqani network, Carney said: "We are obviously always reviewing our aid programs. We obviously take it very seriously and discuss these matters with our Pakistani counterparts."
CONCILIATORY REMARKS TO U.N.
Yet there is no indication American officials are ready to cut ties with volatile, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
"There are differences from time to time in the relationship with Pakistan, as there is in any partnership. Those differences have been made public and we continue to discuss those differences in private," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
At the United Nations on Tuesday, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar struck a conciliatory note, saying Islamabad was committed to achieving peace in Afghanistan and cooperating with the U.S. and Afghan governments.
She suggested that current tensions between Pakistan and its partners were partly due to the difficulties all were facing in their fight against terrorism.
"Given the volatility of the situation, it is perhaps understandable that there is a high level of anxiety and emotions," Khar told the 193-nation General Assembly.
"But we must not lose sight of the goals. We must work closely and as responsible partners in a cooperative manner and not rush to judgments or question each other's intentions."
The United States has been pressing Pakistan to attack the Haqqani network, which it believes is based in North Waziristan near the Afghan border. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the group, says it is no longer based in Pakistan and feels safe operating in Afghanistan.
Analysts say Pakistan sees the Haqqanis as a counterweight to the growing influence of rival India in Afghanistan and is highly unlikely to go after the group.
CIVILIAN NUCLEAR COOPERATION
Gilani said Washington did not help itself when it struck a deal on civilian nuclear cooperation with India, not Pakistan.
"There is an acute shortage of electricity in Pakistan. And there are riots. And the opposition is playing to the gallery because there is a shortage of electricity," he said.
"But they (the United States) are doing the civilian nuclear deal not with Pakistan, but with India. Now how can I convince my public that they are your (Pakistan's) friends and not the friends of India? ... The perception matters."
Asked about Gilani's comment, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "The U.S. does not consider this a zero sum game: U.S.-India or U.S.-Pakistan. We need and we seek good, strong relations with each."
Much of the Pakistani public believes that since the end of the Cold War, the United States has tilted towards India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan since the violent partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
In a demonstration of that distrust, hundreds turned out on Tuesday for anti-American rallies in Pakistani cities.
Also on Tuesday, a suspected U.S. drone strike on a house in Azam Warsak village in South Waziristan's tribal region on the Afghan border killed at least three alleged militants, local intelligence officials said.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, Alister Bull and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Todd Eastham)
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