PESHAWAR: A “Welcome to Pakistan” sign meant to greet travellers from Afghanistan instead caused the shutdown of the busiest crossing between the two nations on Wednesday, as officials on both sides argued over its installation.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have had increasingly fraught relations in recent months, with Islamabad accusing the Taliban government of failing to root out militants staging attacks on Pakistan from Afghan soil – a claim Kabul has denied.
In response to the rising militancy, Islamabad has forced the deportation or voluntary transfer of Afghans it says are living illegally in the country, with more than 400,000 crossing over since October, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
A senior Pakistan border official said Pakistani authorities closed the Torkham crossing to vehicles Wednesday after “the Taliban objected to the installation of a billboard in Pakistani territory saying ‘Welcome to Pakistan’”.
The official, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP the closure was caused by “Taliban who were unhappy with Pakistan’s deportation policy” and “the installation of the billboard was just an excuse”.
On the Afghan side, Quraishi Badloon from Nangarhar province’s information and culture department confirmed that the closure was because “the Pakistani side wanted to install a welcome signboard”.
He said “tension increased” because it was to be erected on “Afghan soil” and there were suspicions the signage was being used as a guise to open a new gate encroaching across the border.
“Talks are ongoing to solve this problem,” he told AFP.
The Nangarhar governor’s office also said the welcome sign caused the closure.
Each side blamed the other for closing the border to vehicles, but agreed to keep it open to pedestrians.
This year the Torkham crossing – equidistant between Islamabad and Kabul – has been frequently shut, with tensions sometimes spilling over into armed clashes between border guards across the frontier.
Many of those leaving Pakistan for Afghanistan since Islamabad announced the migrant crackdown left through the Torkham crossing, a vital waypoint for trade between the countries.
No government in Kabul has ever recognised the colonial-era demarcation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, leading to a long history of border disputes.