(File image) American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo: Susan Walsh

Washington - Pakistan and the United States reached a deal on Tuesday to reopen land routes that NATO uses to supply troops in Afghanistan, ending a seven-month closure imposed after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by NATO aircraft last November.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. She said in a statement that she had offered “sincere condolences” for the deaths which spurred a major diplomatic rift between the two wary allies.

Khar told Clinton the land routes were reopening, and that “Pakistan will continue not to charge any transit fee in the larger interest of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region,” Clinton said.

“This is a tangible demonstration of Pakistan's support for a secure, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan and our shared objectives in the region,” Clinton said, adding that the deal would allow the United States and its NATO partners to conduct their planned military drawdown from Afghanistan at a much lower cost.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said on Tuesday the closure of the routes was damaging ties with the United States, in the clearest signal yet of a breakthrough following seven months of stalemate.

“The continued closure of supply lines not only impinges on our relationship with the U.S., but also on our relations with the 49 other member states of NATO/ISAF,” Ashraf told senior government and military officials, according to a statement issued by his office.

Clinton's statement came closer than the Obama administration had before to an outright apology for the deadly November border incident, while still allowing Washington to say it had not formally apologized.

The border incident had been a major new blow to U.S.-Pakistan ties, following the U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory, at a crucial moment in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Clinton said she “reiterated our deepest regrets”, and offered condolences to the families of the Pakistan soldiers who lost their lives.

“Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives. We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again,” Clinton said.

But the deal, reached after months of haggling between the two sides, also contained a victory for the United States, in that it did not include a big increase in the amount NATO nations pay to ship supplies into Afghanistan or payment of arrears in U.S. military support provided to Pakistan.

NATO nations, grappling with severe fiscal pressures at home, had been anxious to reach an agreement, in part because shipping supplies into land-locked Afghanistan from the north costs 2-1/2 times as much as through Pakistan.

The Pakistani routes into Afghanistan will become even more important as NATO commanders prepare to withdraw most of the 128,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan - and the equipment they have accumulated since 2001 - by the end of 2014.

Clinton said Khar told her that, consistent with current practice, no lethal equipment will transit the Pakistan land routes into Afghanistan except for equipping the Afghan army, which NATO nations expect to assume security responsibility for the country as NATO forces withdraw. -Reuters