Wed, Jan 07, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Afghan, Pakistani leaders due to meet

NEW KID ON THE BLOCK Officials have expressed hope that the two countries can improve cooperation following the election of Asif Ali Zardari in September


Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was due in Kabul yesterday for his first official visit to Afghanistan, which was likely to focus on how to tackle extremist violence straddling their common border.

Zardari, who postponed a trip last month because of bad weather, was due to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai shortly after arriving from Islamabad yesterday afternoon, the Pakistani embassy said.

“They will mainly be discussing bilateral relations, economic cooperation, trade and the regional situation,” embassy spokesman Naeem Khan said.

Asked if the resurgence of the extremist Taliban along the Afghan and Pakistan border would be a focus, he said: “The regional situation covers all related topics.”

The visit by Zardari comes less than a week after Pakistan’s army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani travelled to Afghanistan to discuss the fight against insurgents.

The rugged border belt is a new focus in the US-led “war on terror,” with Taliban and al-Qaeda militants operating bases on the Pakistan side from which they are said to send fighters to carry out attacks, including in Afghanistan.

Islamabad and Kabul have been unable to rein in the extremists that have been holed up in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas since they fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion that drove out the Taliban government in late 2001.

The situation has strained relations between the two Islamic nations, with Karzai accusing Pakistan of not doing enough to shut down militant “sanctuaries” on its soil and stop insurgents from crossing into Afghanistan.

Officials have expressed hope that the two countries can improve cooperation under Zardari, who was elected in September to replace former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, with whom Karzai had a difficult relationship.

The Afghan leader visited Pakistan to attend Zardari’s swearing-in ceremony.

At their last meeting in Istanbul early last month they pledged to “confront the scourge of terrorism in all its forms.”

Zardari said on Monday, after meeting US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher, that Pakistan was “pursuing cooperative partnerships with regional countries” to combat terrorism and extremism.

The Pakistani leader “expressed the hope that his forthcoming visit to Afghanistan would contribute to enhanced cooperation in the areas of security, counter-terrorism and economic development,” a foreign ministry statement said.

Karzai said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune newspaper last month that he had no doubt that Zardari was serious about the “war on terrorism.”

“And I hope he and his government will succeed in this regard ... I have full trust in him and his intentions,” he said.

Pakistan last week mounted a major offensive to clear militants from an area near a key highway into Afghanistan used by trucks ferrying supplies to NATO and US troops helping Kabul to fight the insurgency.

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