WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will attend a summit of NATO leaders in Chicago this weekend, the Pakistan Embassy in Washington said on Tuesday, ending speculation Islamabad might be excluded from the high-level talks on Afghanistan's future.
Nadeem Hotiana, an embassy spokesman, confirmed Zardari's attendance at the May 20-21 summit, a sign Washington and Islamabad may finally be able to significantly improve ties following the NATO air strike in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and prompted Pakistan to shut NATO supply routes into Afghanistan.
"This meeting will underline the strong commitment of the international community to the people of Afghanistan and to its future. Pakistan has an important role to play in that future," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in a statement.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is also expected to attend the meeting, where NATO nations will hone their plans to withdraw most of their troops by the end of 2014. As the Western presence ebbs, Pakistan, whose tribal areas are home to Taliban and other militants, will be key in shaping Afghanistan's future.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested on Friday that Pakistan could be excluded from the summit if it failed to reopen the supply routes to Afghanistan.
Rasmussen noted that other countries providing supply routes to NATO had been invited to the summit. Pakistan boycotted an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in December in protest against the NATO air strikes the previous month.
Pakistan had demanded a formal apology from the United States for the border attack before it reopens the supply routes and called for an end to U.S. drone strikes on its tribal areas.
U.S. and Pakistani officials are continuing talks in Islamabad aimed at reopening those ground supply routes. Pakistan now says it expects the routes to reopen; Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. military hoped that would occur in the "very near future."
In a statement, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's office said ministers had backed a proposal to allow NATO to send only non-lethal equipment into Afghanistan on Pakistani roads.
"It was also decided that the military authorities should negotiate fresh border ground rules with NATO ... to ensure that (such border) incidents do not reoccur," the statement said.
(Reporting by Sebastian Moffett in Brussels; Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar in Islamabad and Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Cynthia Osterman)