Wed, Nov 24, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Pakistani leader positive ahead of meeting in India

AFP , NEW DELHI

Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz struck a conciliatory note before his scheduled arrival in India yesterday to discuss the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir with the government and separatists.

A fresh verbal spat broke out last week over the scope of peace talks between the two nations, which have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.

"My visit tomorrow will improve the atmosphere of relations between the two countries," Aziz said in Colombo Monday. "The relations have improved considerably ... It is very sportsmanlike across the board."

In an interview with the BBC, Aziz noted that Pakistan and India have in the past year restored air, road and rail links as well as cultural and sports ties including a tour of Pakistan by the Indian cricket team.

"If I had to do a very objective analysis of where we are today versus 12 months ago, I think we are substantially ahead," Aziz said, adding that the main purpose of his visit was "to get the dialogue process moving forward."

In his first official visit to Kashmir last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rejected redrawing borders as a solution to Kashmir.

The statement effectively scuttled a suggestion by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf that Kashmir could be divided into seven regions -- any one of which could be demilitarized and placed under a UN mandate, under joint control or given independence.

In response to Singh's statement Musharraf said in an exclusive interview that the "vibes" from New Delhi were not good.

Aziz was set to arrive yesterday afternoon after a brief stop in the Maldives in his capacity as outgoing chairman of the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Later yesterday Aziz was to meet Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, followed by a meeting with Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar to discuss a long-pending Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.

He will later meet former premier Atal Behari Vajpayee, who set in motion the current peace process by offering a "hand of friendship" to Pakistan in April last year -- ending a two-year freeze in relations.

Aziz is to meet Prime Minister Singh today for talks followed by lunch, according to India's foreign ministry.

The two leaders are expected to review recent developments in the peace process, known as the composite dialogue. A second round of talks is to begin later this month.

Indian foreign ministry sp-okesman Navtej Sarna said Monday that Aziz was visiting the region as chairman of SAARC, so the focus was likely to be on regional issues, but that discussions on bilateral issues were also expected.

Sarna said New Delhi was hopeful of progress.

"We have been always hopeful that all the interactions will improve bilateral relations," he said.

Aziz is also scheduled to meet leaders of Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, either over dinner last night or this morning before meeting Singh, press reports said.

On Sunday Natwar Singh said Pakistan needed to be patient on resolving the dispute over Kashmir, which is divided between the two nations but claimed in full by both.

"It [Kashmir] is an old question ... It's not possible that results will come in a day or two," he said.

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