ISLAMABAD – Pakistan on Monday accused Afghan forces of killing at least four civilians in a cross-border shelling attack, increasing tension just as a senior Afghan official visited Islamabad to discuss peace talks with the Taliban.
Pakistan is seen as critical to reaching a peace deal with the Taliban because of its historical ties to the group. The process has been complicated by significant levels of distrust among the major players -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and the Taliban.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani condemned Sunday evening's cross-border attack in a conversation with the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Mohammad Umar Daudzai.
Jilani called the attacks "unhelpful and unproductive" and said they would undermine "the conducive environment that Pakistan is trying to create for promotion of peace and stability in the region," according to a statement from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry.
The Pakistani government said the attack killed four civilians, but Pakistani intelligence officials and a local resident, Habib Wazir, put the death toll at five -- four men and a child. They said mortars exploded outside a house in the border village of Neiznarai in the South Waziristan tribal area.
The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
There was no immediate response from the Afghan government, which has repeatedly accused Pakistani forces of killing Afghan civilians with cross-border shelling in the other direction.
The latest accusations surfaced as the head of the Afghan government's council for peace talks with the Taliban, Salahuddin Rabbani, started three days of talks in Islamabad with Pakistani political and military leaders. Kabul set up the council in 2010 to negotiate an end to the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Rabbani was named the council chief after his predecessor and father, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated in Sept. 2011. The killing stalled peace efforts and exacerbated tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Afghan officials accused Pakistani intelligence agents of involvement in the assassination, allegations denied by Islamabad.
Rabbani met Monday with Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who expressed hope that the visit would improve relations between the two countries.
Significant disagreements remain. Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of not doing enough to prevent Taliban militants from using its territory to launch cross-border attacks against Afghan and U.S.-led forces.
Kabul has also demanded that Islamabad release the former deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was captured in Pakistan in 2010. His arrest reportedly angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai because Baradar was conducting secret talks with the Afghan government.
Pakistan has refused to release Baradar, who is seen by some as a potentially important player in striking a peace deal in Afghanistan. Islamabad has also struck back by accusing Kabul of not doing enough to stop militants based in Afghanistan from launching cross-border attacks against Pakistan.
Despite these disagreements, there is hope among some analysts that Pakistan may step up its cooperation with the peace process, because Islamabad is concerned that instability in Afghanistan after most foreign forces withdraw in 2014 could negatively impact Pakistan.
Many of the Taliban's top leaders are thought to be based in Pakistan, and Islamabad and Washington recently set up a group to determine which militants would be open to reconciliation and ensure they could travel out of the country for talks.