Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said in an interview that arch-enemy India had never been a threat to his country and that Islamic militant groups in Indian-controlled Kashmir were “terrorists.”
Zardari also indicated to the Wall Street Journal that there was an “understanding” with the US over US missile strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas.
His views on India appear to run counter to that of Pakistan’s powerful military, which has regarded its nuclear-armed neighbor as an existential threat since the creation of the two countries after independence in 1947.
“India has never been a threat to Pakistan,” said Zardari, who as the widower of Benazir Bhutto came to power last month after the new civilian government ousted former president Pervez Musharraf.
Asked if he would consider a free-trade pact with India, he said: “I, for one, and our democratic government is not scared of Indian influence abroad.”
Majority-Hindu India and mainly Muslim Pakistan launched a peace process in 2004 but relations between the two nations remain tense amid accusations that Islamabad’s powerful intelligence agencies are sponsoring Islamic militancy.
The paper however said that Zardari called Islamic militants operating in Kashmir “terrorists” during the interview, apparently the first time that any Pakistani leader has referred to them as such.
A senior Indian official reportedly welcomed Zarari’s comments.
“Zardari’s statement is a welcome step. President Zardari and Pakistan should honour the words with action in curbing terrorism,” the Press Trust of India quoted Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma as saying.
The row over Kashmir has sparked two of the three major wars between India and Pakistan, as well as a short conflict in 1999 and a major military build-up on the border in 2002.
India has long accused Pakistan of sponsoring an 18-year-old Islamist insurgency in the part of the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir that is controlled by New Delhi.
Pakistan denies the claim but has often spoken in support of those fighting for what it calls the right to self-determination in Kashmir, while state television runs daily segments on alleged Indian atrocities in the region.
Sharma said Zardari’s description of Kashmiri militants as terrorists was “made, perhaps, for the first time by a top Pakistani leader, which is in contrast with its earlier position of terming militants as jihadis [holy warriors].”
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