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Pakistan’s Worst Air Disaster Shifts Attention From WikiLeaks Tension

July 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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A deadly plane crash in Pakistan killed 152 passengers including two Americans. Kwame Holman has more on the disaster and questions that has been raised about the country's role in the Afghan war.
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JIM LEHRER: And to Pakistan, where an airliner crashed today, killing all 152 people on board, including two Americans. The tragedy momentarily shifted the focus from new tensions created by the leak of Afghan war documents.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was the worst air disaster ever in Pakistan. The Airblue plane went down in the hills overlooking Islamabad and scattered wreckage and passengers’ bodies across the rugged area.

BIN YAMEEN, deputy inspector general of police, Pakistan (through translator): We didn’t find any intact bodies. We found pieces under the wreckage. We put the body parts in bags. The recovery operation has almost been completed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Officials of the airline said the Airbus A321 was no more than eight years old and didn’t appear to have any mechanical problems.

RAHEEL AHMED, marketing general manager, Airblue: Maintenance was done regularly. Like I said, there was nothing wrong technically with the aircraft. Of course, when the investigation will take place, they will get to know what all happened. But, right now, I don’t think we should get into speculations as such.

KWAME HOLMAN: In Washington, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, spoke at a U.S. House hearing.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: I understand from our embassy in Islamabad that the smoke is visible throughout the city. We hear there’s going to be a national day of mourning. There are apparently two Americans who were on that plane. And I just want to express, on behalf of the U.S. government, the administration, our deep condolences.

KWAME HOLMAN: Holbrooke then turned to the issue that’s dominated the week in Washington, the leak of 91,000 secret U.S. military documents on the war in Afghanistan.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: First of all, the leak — leaks themselves are pretty appalling. And for somebody like myself, who has been in and out of the government for over 40 years, in fact, an author of one of the volumes of the Pentagon Papers — so I have lived through something similar before — I just find it inexplicable that people who would take the oath of office to the United States could violate it in such an extraordinary way.

KWAME HOLMAN: Other top U.S. officials have warned, the documents may place American operatives inside Afghanistan and Pakistan in danger. And some of the disclosures put the U.S. relationship with Pakistan back in the spotlight.

In particular, the leaks raised new questions about links between the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. A former head of the agency insisted this week the documents were made up.

HAMID GUL, former head, Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, Pakistan: All this is fictional. There is no truth in it, all the allegations that have been leveled against me. It only depicts the intelligence failure on the part of America and whoever else.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the issue came up at U.S. congressional hearings this week.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN,(R-Ariz.): The WikiLeaks controversy has reopened charges that elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services are playing both sides of the fight in Afghanistan. But this shouldn’t be surprising, especially when we are sounding an uncertain trumpet about our own commitment.

KWAME HOLMAN: Just last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to bolster that commitment in Pakistan with a new pledge of $500 million in aid.

Back at today’s House hearing, Special Representative Holbrooke insisted U.S. policy remains firm, despite the WikiLeaks furor.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: There is nothing in these documents, most of which date way back into the previous administration, that change — that should change anyone’s judgments about the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

KWAME HOLMAN: And, in Afghanistan today, a NATO spokesman echoed that sentiment.

BRIG. GEN. JOSEF BLOTZ, spokesman, International Security Assistance Force: Let me assure you, this unfortunate event will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnership with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday, the U.S. House easily rejected a bid to withdraw American military advisers and other forces currently serving in Pakistan.