The United States may scrap upcoming talks with Pakistan about the war in Afghanistan to further pressure Islamabad to free an American who shot dead two Pakistanis, US officials said.
Washington insists the detained American has diplomatic immunity and killed the Pakistanis in self-defense as they tried to rob him at gunpoint. It says the man's detention is illegal under international agreements covering diplomatic ties.
Pakistani leaders, facing a groundswell of popular anger triggered by the incident, have avoided definitive statements on the status of the American, whom they have named as Raymond Davis. Davis's next court appearance is set for Feb. 11.
Two senior US officials said on Monday that talks involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US set for Feb. 24 in Washington are now in doubt because of the spat. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release the information publicly.
The talks are supposed to be held at the ministerial level, meaning US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Shah Mahmood Qureshi would participate. It's possible that they could simply be downgraded to included just lower-level officials.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said the two countries must not lose sight of the strategic imperatives of their relationship.
"Our relations are mature enough to navigate through difficulties," he wrote in a text message.
US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday and pressed him to release Davis. That meeting and recent US press statements have indicated growing frustration with an ally considered key to ending the conflict in Afghanistan.
Pakistan risks looking like an American lackey if it caves into demands to free Davis. But it's also a risk to ignore the US, which provides it with billions of dollars in military and other aid.
Federal officials say Davis' fate is up to courts in Punjab province, while provincial officials say the federal government must inform them whether Davis has immunity and has not done so. The two governments are controlled by rival political parties, which further complicates the matter.
Davis shot the two men Jan. 27 in the eastern city of Lahore. A third Pakistani, a bystander, died when a car rushing to back Davis up struck him. Police have said they want to question the Americans suspected in that death as well.
Clinton spoke with Zardari by phone last week about the diplomat's case and also raised it with Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on the sidelines of an international security conference in Germany at the weekend, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
"We continue to make it clear to the government of Pakistan that our diplomat has diplomatic immunity and in our view was acting in self-defense and should be released," Crowley said Monday.
The wife of one of the men who Davis shot committed suicide on Sunday, explaining beforehand that she feared her husband's killer would be freed without trial. Her death further inflamed anti-American sentiment.