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Fatal shootings threaten to shatter fragile U.S.-Pakistan relationship

U.S. consulate employee Raymond Davis is escorted out of courtin Lahore on Jan. 28, 2011. Mr. Davis, jailed for shooting two Pakistanis, is shielded by diplomatic immunity.

REUTERS/Tariq Saeed

Three weeks ago, at a traffic light in Lahore, U.S. citizen Raymond Davis pulled out a Glock pistol and gunned down two Pakistani motorcyclists.

That and the fact that Mr. Davis, 36, went to Powell Valley High School in Big Stone Gap, Va., may be the only two things not in dispute in this murky incident that has become a major dispute between the Obama administration and its long-time ally Pakistan.

On a trip to Pakistan, U.S. Senator John Kerry voiced "deepest regret" Wednesday and promised that Mr. Davis will face a criminal probe in the United States. But he held to demands for Mr. Davis's immediate release because he carries a diplomatic passport.

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In Lahore, thousands have marched chanting that the gun-toting American be publicly hanged for double murder.

Pakistanis are inflamed by as yet unsubstantiated accounts that Mr. Davis was an undocumented U.S. agent with a cellphone full of numbers for contacts in the wild and remote border areas where the Taliban rule and where Osama bin Laden is believed hiding. Rumours abound that he was a mercenary, a double-agent, an assassin.

In Washington, Obama administration officials insist Mr. Davis is a diplomat who shot in self defence when a pair of would-be muggers waved pistols at him through the window of his white Honda Civic.

Mr. Davis – in a video mysteriously leaked and now whipping around the Internet – tells interrogators in a police cell that he is a "consultant" and that his passport was "lost" in the Honda. Meanwhile, to the embarrassment of Pakistan, police in the video tell him "no money, no water" and generally act like thugs demanding bribes.

President Barack Obama has weighed in. "If our diplomats are in another country, then they are not subject to that country's local prosecution," a reference to the immunity granted diplomats under the Vienna Convention.

But Pakistanis are outraged by the killings and doubt whether Mr. Davis qualifies as a diplomat. Mr. Obama admitted "a couple of Pakistanis were killed … so obviously we're concerned about the loss of life," adding, "we're not callous … but there's a broader principle at stake."

For the bereaved, the bigger issue is justice and they fear Mr. Davis will walk free back in the United States.

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"We will only accept blood for blood," Imran Haider, brother of one of the slain men said. Mr. Davis "should be tried in Pakistan and sentenced to death here." The wife of the other man committed suicide by eating rat poison.

Pakistani reports say the two dead men had guns, but they were not fired. Both men were shot multiple times – in the back. Other reports say the two were low-level Pakistani agents who had been tailing the American on behalf of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's powerful spy agency that many believe still maintains contacts with the Taliban as well as insurgent and extremist groups in Kashmir.

After the Jan. 27 shooting, Mr. Davis called for help. A heavily armed, five-person, rapid-reaction team from the U.S. consulate raced the wrong way down a divided boulevard in a large SUV, killing another Pakistani. Mr. Davis, after photographing the bullet-ridden corpses, tried to escape was but captured. The SUV and its occupants slipped away and Washington refuses to identify or allow the team to be questioned.

More than diplomatic niceties and the fate of Mr. Davis are at stake.

U.S.-Pakistani relations are both crucial and bedevilled. Washington regards Islamabad as a vital ally in the war against Islamic extremism. Pakistan provides vital supply routes to sustain the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and (mostly) turns a blind eye to Mr. Obama's much-escalated campaign of using unmanned drones firing Hellfire missiles to assassinate Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects inside Pakistan. Mr. Davis may know a great deal about the covert U.S. war inside Pakistan, details that might be even more embarrassing to Islamabad than to Washington.

Pakistan can ill afford to release Mr. Davis without setting off a firestorm of angry protests.

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The United States can't abandon a diplomat, no matter how odd the circumstances of his arrest. And this "diplomat" was a former Special Forces soldier who apparently owned and ran, with his wife, a firm called Hyperion Protective Consultants.

After meeting with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, Mr. Kerry said he expected the issue to be resolved in "three or four days."

But Mr. Zardari, husband of the assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said the "matter is not as simple as it looks."

Mr. Davis is due back in a Lahore court Wednesday.

"He is a U.S. diplomat, currently incarcerated in Pakistan, who has diplomatic immunity and should be released," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday.

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Paul More

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