ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The United States demanded the immediate release of an American official arrested in the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis, upping the stakes Saturday in a spat that has revealed the fragility of a relationship Washington believes is crucial for success in Afghanistan and against al-Qaida.
The U.S. Embassy said the man had a diplomatic passport and was immune from prosecution. It accused the Pakistani police of illegally detaining him. The mission said the man acted in self-defense against two armed men who approached his car in the city of Lahore on Thursday, intent on robbing him.
Pakistani authorities have identified the American as Raymond Davis, but U.S. Embassy officials have not confirmed his identity.
Rana Sanaullah, the law minister in Punjab province where the shootings took place, said the American's fate would be decided in the courts. He said the provincial government could not free him even if directed to by the central government.
"It is for the court to decide whether someone having a diplomatic passport is allowed to kill someone," he told the Associated Press. "If the American government wants to get him released, it will have to plead before the court."
Allowing the American to return home without facing trial could spark a potentially destabilizing backlash against the government, which is already weak and accused by critics of being subservient to the U.S. The killings in Lahore have been seized on by many in Pakistan as fresh evidence of America's malign intent in the region.
"This is a test case for our rulers," said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of an Islamist party that recently pulled out of the ruling coalition. "A foreigner, an American, cannot be allowed to shed blood this way. The matter is in the court. The facts will be revealed there."
The man was taken into custody soon after the shootings and appeared in court Friday for an initial hearing. U.S. officials were granted access to him only late the same day, soon after prosecutors said they would pursue possible murder charges against him.
The embassy statement made it clear Washington did not want to see him brought before a Pakistani judge again.
"The United States Embassy in Pakistan calls for the immediate release" of the diplomat, it said.
The U.S. Embassy statement did not answer all the questions that have swirled around the incident, including what the American did at the mission and why he was carrying a gun. Under Pakistani law, officials with embassies and foreign missions can only possess firearms if they obtain permission from the Pakistani Foreign Office. The lack of clarity has fueled media speculation he may be a CIA agent or a security contractor, as well as questions over whether he qualified for diplomatic immunity.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Courtney Beale said only that the detained man was "a member of the administrative and technical staff."
A third man died when he was allegedly hit by an American car that rushed to the scene to help the U.S. official. The U.S. Embassy statement did not refer to that incident. Pakistani police have said they want to question the driver of that vehicle as well.
Washington has made strengthening ties with Pakistan a top priority and is committed to giving it $7.5 billion dollars in civilian aid, one of its largest programs anywhere in the world. It wants to secure the country's help in stabilizing Afghanistan by attacking militant sanctuaries on its side of the border.
This report contains information from the Los Angeles Times.