PAKISTANI Taliban leaders have warned of violent retribution if the government gives in to US demands to free a consular staffer.
The staffer had been charged with double murder.
The threat comes as Pakistani analysts warned that the escalating diplomatic standoff between the allies could trigger mass anti-government protests along the lines of those that have rocked Egypt and Tunisia.
Pakistan-US relations have plummeted since the arrest last month of US consular employee Raymond Davis, who shot and killed two local motorcyclists in Lahore last month after they approached his car at traffic lights. He said he feared they would kidnap him.
The US State Department has demanded Mr Davis be granted diplomatic immunity, and raised the stakes by postponing key talks between the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan scheduled for this month in Washington.
The issue is fanning anti-US sentiment in Pakistan as the people struggle with the economic downturn and the aftermath of last year’s massive floods, which devastated communities and caused food prices to rise sharply.
Hardliners have seized on the issue to capitalise on growing public resentment at the US over its drone attacks on border areas and the perception Washington has an army of spies and mercenaries in the country.
Weekend comments by the Taliban have turned up the pressure on Pakistan’s weak civilian government, already wedged between an ally determined to box it into a corner and an angry population suspicious of foreign influence.
“We demand the Pakistani government hang Raymond Davis or otherwise hand him over to us. We will decide his fate,” said Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Azam Tariq. “He was here for spying. He is an American spy. We will kill all those people and will target those who will help him or try to set him free.”
Pakistani officials have so far avoided verifying the diplomatic status of Davis, a former US Army Special Forces soldier, and police are pushing for murder charges against him.
Khuram Iqbal, from the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, warned that the issue had the potential to trigger mass unrest and instability.
“This is going to be a real test for the US relationship, and the Pakistan government needs to handle this situation very tactfully,” he told The Australian. AMANDA HODGE