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Truckers Celebrate NATO Resumption

Idle oil tankers parked on the roadside in Karachi. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi/IPS.

KARACHI, Jul 8 2012 (IPS) - “I’m happy that I will be resuming work soon,” says Zarbistan Khan, who owns and drives a tanker that takes oil from the southern port city Karachi to Afghanistan. But the joy comes under the shadow of a Taliban threat to attack supply convoys.

“We will do our best to stop the NATO supply and will never allow someone to ship weapons for killing Muslims,” Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan has declared.

Pakistan’s roads are primarily used for sending oil and other supplies, not weapons. In 2007, the military was burning 575,000 gallons of fuel per day in Afghanistan, and 80 percent of this fuel came from Pakistani refineries. But this supply too is under threat.

“We don’t have much confidence the government can provide us foolproof security,” Akram Khan Durrani, chairman of the All Pakistan Oil Tankers Owners Association tells IPS sitting in the comfort of his airconditioned office in Karachi’s Shireen Jinnah colony.

Since NATO supplies via Pakistan began in 2001, Durrani says at least 150 drivers and cleaners who accompany drivers had been killed, and many more have suffered serious injuries. Hundreds of vehicles have been torched in militant attacks.

In 2008, 42 oil tankers were destroyed in a single attack. The same year 300 militants attacked a freight terminal in Peshawar, setting fire to 96 supply trucks and six containers.

“We need more security this time as the militants have openly threatened us and said not only the NATO trucks and tankers will be attacked, but the drivers and cleaners will be beheaded,” says Durrani. Of a total of 4,500 tanker trucks, about 2,200 are available to take NATO oil supplies to Afghanistan. The rest are used for domestic ferrying.

Driver Ziauddin Afridi believes it will take time to get moving. “It will take us a good one month,” he says, pointing at the hundreds of vehicles parked on the road facing the Arabian Sea. “These tankers have been sitting lifeless on the road for over seven months. They need overhauling – the tyres, the engine, batteries and the paintwork – all this will take time.”

Mechanic Abdul Ghaffar has already begun work. He and his four brothers are the only ones in the area who can repair a Chinese-made Mercedes engine. “We used to earn between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 (53 to 106 dollars) comfortably on a given day before the NATO blockade, and we worked from 9am to 9pm.” In the last seven months Ghaffar says they were lucky if they could take home that much in a week.

Mirbaz Khan is a welder working out of a huge steel trunk chained to a wall outside Ghaffar’s shop. “It’s all about money,” he says, wiping his oil-stained hands on a rag. “The more they (Taliban) damage the vehicles, the more work there is for me.”

Truck artists too are jubilant about the reopening. “We’ve already got orders to decorate the vehicles,” Haider Ali tells IPS. “The past few months have been very difficult.”

NATO – Relief for Small Traders from IPS Inter Press Service on Vimeo.

The reopening, he says, will benefit several other small businesses linked to trucking – dent fixers, painters, electricians, mechanics of all sorts, body-makers, decorators, and restaurant and tea shops owners.

Even the highway police will ‘benefit’. Drivers say that more than the threat from the militants they dread harassment by the highway police. “We have to bribe our way through, otherwise they do not let our vehicles pass. But no one talks about this injustice,” says Rahat Khan, who has been a driver since 1990.

Pakistan cut off the supply line in protest after a deadly air raid by NATO forces on two Pakistani checkposts on Nov. 26 last year killed 24 soldiers. The blockade has cost the U.S. more than a billion dollars in extra shipping fees through Central Asia.

Pakistan decided to reopen the route after the U.S. apologised for killing the soldiers.

“I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement after a telephone conversation with her Pakistani counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar.

Opposition leaders have criticised the government’s move.

“Parliament’s recommendations demanding an unconditional apology over the Salala raid, a halt to U.S. drone attacks, 5,000 dollars transit fee per NATO container and assurance for respect of ground and airspace of Pakistan have been bypassed,” said Imran Khan, former cricketing hero and chairman of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI).

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