WASHINGTON — The word “sorry” from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday apparently opened supply routes through Pakistan that have been closed to U.S. military traffic since November at an estimated cost of $700 million to U.S. taxpayers.

The routes were closed days after U.S. troops killed 24 Pakistani soldiers during a Nov. 26 cross-border firefight. Both sides deflected responsibility. Pakistan demanded the United States apologize as a condition for allowing Afghan war supplies to resume passage through the country, but U.S. officials until now have only expressed “deepest regret” for the loss of life.

Clinton spoke by telephone Tuesday with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. During the conversation, according to a statement, she offered the U.S. government’s condolences to the families of Pakistani soldiers and then said the magic word.

“Foreign minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives,” Clinton’s statement said. “We are sorry for the losses by the Pakistani military.”

The reopening of the routes comes without the previous Pakistani demand for fees of up to $5,000 per shipping container transiting the routes, according to Clinton’s statement.

After months of growing tension with Pakistan over issues including the unannounced U.S. operation to kill Osama bin Laden, increasing U.S. drone attacks on militants in Pakistan and Pakistan’s support of Haqqani network insurgents in Afghanistan, officials hailed the opening of the supply routes as a hopeful sign that relations were on the mend.

“I welcome Pakistan’s decision to open the ground lines of communication,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said. “As I have made clear, we remain committed to improving our partnership with Pakistan and to working closely together as our two nations confront common security challenges in the region.”

The opening of the routes promises to save billions of dollars as the U.S. prepares to draw down its presence in Afghanistan. The need to bring supplies through northern routes and by air has added $100 million a month in expenses, Panetta estimated last month.

But is the statement, written in carefully calibrated diplomatic language, actually an apology for U.S. troops’ actions in the fateful November firefight?

According to a Pentagon report released in December, U.S. and Afghan troops came under fire from across the Pakistani border while conducting a night operation. After a show of force by U.S. aircraft launching flares, the shooting continued, the report said, and the aircraft attacked the enemy positions, killing 24 troops. Miscommunication and reluctance by U.S. commanders to fully report troop positions to the Pakistani military helped lead to the deaths, the report said.

The report also concluded that the U.S. troops who did the fighting “acted in self defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon.”

The Pentagon stands by the report, and Clinton’s statement that the United States is sorry for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers does not contradict the earlier assessment, Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said Tuesday.

“None of this today changes what we previously said with respect to the incident,” Kirby said.

Translation: The troops under fire that night have nothing to be sorry for.

carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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