ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Russia and neighboring Central Asian nations have agreed to let supplies pass through their territory to American soldiers in Afghanistan, lessening Washington's dependence on dangerous routes through Pakistan, a top U.S. commander said Tuesday.
Securing alternative routes to landlocked Afghanistan has taken on added urgency this year as the United States prepares to double troop numbers there to 60,000 to battle a resurgent Taliban eight years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani army said it had killed 60 militants in a stepped up offensive close to the Afghan border, a lawless region considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. Washington has long urged Islamabad to take the fight to the insurgents sheltering there.
U.S. and NATO forces get up to 75 percent of their "non-lethal" supplies such as food, fuel and building materials from shipments that traverse Pakistan, a volatile, nuclear-armed country.
The main road through the Khyber Pass in the northwest of the country has occasionally been closed in recent months due to rising attacks by bandits and Islamist militants.
U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said America had struck deals with Russia and several Central Asian states close to or bordering Afghanistan during a tour of the region in the past week.
"We have sought additional logistical routes into Afghanistan from the north. There have been agreements reached," Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told reporters during a visit to Pakistan.
"It is very important as we increase the effort in Afghanistan that we have multiple routes that go into the country."
Petraeus gave few details, but NATO and U.S. officials have said recently they were close to securing transit agreements with Russia and the patchwork of Central Asia states to the north of Afghanistan.
Analysts say the United States' dependence on Pakistani supply routes means it has little leverage to push Islamabad too hard on issues of bilateral concern, such as the campaign against al-Qaida.
U.S. officials have said one likely new route is overland from Russia through Kazakhstan and on through Uzbekistan using trucks and trains. Another possible route is through Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to the Kazakh port of Aktau and then through Uzbekistan.
Few analysts expect Washington to abandon the Pakistan routes altogether - unless they become impossible to traverse due to security concerns - because they are the shortest and cheapest lines. The goods arrive in Pakistan in the southern port of Karachi.
Petraeus met with Pakistan's army chief, prime minister and president on the trip, the latest in a flurry of visits by high-ranking U.S. officials in recent months.
Washington and other Western allies are trying to keep Pakistan focused on the al-Qaida threat as well as defuse tensions with neighboring India over the November terror attacks in Mumbai.
In Pakistan's northwest Tuesday, 60 "hardcore militants" were killed in the Mohmand tribal area, including at least four people identified as commanders, a Pakistani Army statement said.
Mohmand lies next to Bajur, a tribal region where the Pakistani military has been battling militants for months. That operation has extended into Mohmand in recent weeks.
Security forces used artillery and fighter jets to strike the insurgents, a government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on military operations.
Also Tuesday, police said suspected Taliban militants killed six alleged U.S. spies in a tribal region, where American missile attacks have reportedly killed several al-Qaida leaders in recent months.
Analysts speculate Pakistan and Washington have a secret deal allowing the missile strikes, but Pakistan routinely issues public protests against them, saying they inflame anti-American sentiment and violate Pakistani sovereignty.
A tribal police official, Sharif Ullah, said the bodies of the six accused spies were found at two militant strongholds in the North Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border early Tuesday.
Ullah said notes pinned to the bodies accused them of passing information to Americans in exchange for money and threatened other informers with the same fate.
Militants in North Waziristan have killed at least 19 people they accused of spying for the U.S. since mid-December, including the new victims. Ullah said killings of accused spies were growing in scope.