U.S. rejects Pakistan's F-16 request

Jet fighters noticeably absent from aid package

War On Terrorism : The World


WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has rejected Pakistan's request to release a fleet of F-16 jet fighters that it bought in the 1980s, U.S. officials said yesterday, adding that the United States wanted to avoid destabilizing relations in South Asia.

In an interview Saturday, the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said transferring the fighters would be an important symbolic gesture of U.S. gratitude for his nation's strong support in the war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan purchased 28 F-16s in the 1980s, but their delivery was blocked when Congress cut off all aid and military sales in 1990, citing Pakistan's secret development of nuclear weapons.

President Bush announced Saturday that the United States was providing an aid package worth more than $1 billion to Pakistan in exchange for its war support, but the F-16s were conspicuously absent from the deal.

Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell discussed the matter with Musharraf in meetings in New York but decided against making the fighters a part of the United States' renewed ties with Pakistan.

"They would like to have the planes, but at the moment we are restarting our military-to-military relationship in a more serious way, and the planes are not an issue that we expect to be discussing in the very near future," Powell said in an interview yesterday.

The Clinton administration had settled the long-standing dispute over the planes by sending Pakistan cash and commodities worth more than $500 million, officials said yesterday. New Zealand later agreed to buy some of the fighters but then changed its mind. The F-16s remain in storage at an Air Force base in the Arizona desert.

Despite the settlement, Musharraf said that Pakistan still wanted the F-16s, an advanced fighter-bomber, as a visible sign that the United States was restoring Pakistan to the status of a genuine ally.

Having his public request turned down flat was an embarrassing setback that Musharraf said would be "received negatively" in Pakistan.

"We're at the very beginnings of resuming military-to-military contacts with Pakistan, and right now, we're looking at more modest requests, like providing spare parts and assisting their border security with helicopters," said an administration official.

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