Indian leader travels to Pakistan for talks

Prime minister is quiet on whether he will meet with Pakistani officials

January 04, 2004|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee received a warm welcome on his arrival in Pakistan yesterday for a regional summit seen as the best chance in years to get two old enemies talking again.

But Vajpayee kept his hosts guessing whether he would agree to bilateral discussions with either Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf or Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali on the sidelines of the conference that begins today.

Jamali clasped Vajpayee's hand tightly as the leaders smiled broadly for the cameras after the Indian prime minister, who at 78 suffers a leg ailment, walked haltingly from an Indian Air Force passenger jet and past a Pakistani honor guard.

Pakistani officials say Jamali and Musharraf want to talk with Vajpayee about bilateral issues outside the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation here. But Vajpayees' aides remained uncommitted on the eve of the summit.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Mahmood Kasuri said he did not know of any agreement by Vajpayee to hold talks with Musharraf or Jamali during the conference, which focuses on free trade and counterterrorism.

"It takes two to tango," Khursheed told reporters yesterday evening. "If you need peace in South Asia, you need a peace partner. Pakistan is ready, but we need a partner, and that partner can only appear on the scene when we start talking and have a dialogue."

Before leaving New Delhi, Vajpayee told an Indian television interviewer that he would not have any bilateral talks with Pakistani leaders.

"We want to give our undivided attention and energy to the success" of the summit, Vajpayee said. "Its success will help the resolution of other problems."

Vajpayee told an Indian magazine that he would "interact" with his hosts, but he ruled out any "meaningful discussions."

The Indian prime minister is expected to meet either Musharraf and Jamali, or both, at an informal gathering of the leaders of the summit countries, which include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Although Pakistani and Indian leaders might do nothing more than exchange pleasantries, any meeting could provide an opening for discussions on how to move toward formal negotiations.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and there have been countless border skirmishes, since they gained independence from Britain in 1947. The nuclear-armed neighbors almost went to war again after a terrorist attack in December 2001 on India's Parliament buildings that left 15 people dead, including the five attackers. India accused Pakistan of masterminding the assault, which Pakistan denied.

After massing about 1 million soldiers on their borders and on the front line dividing the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, both sides pulled back from the brink, largely under pressure from Washington.

Last month, Vajpayee accepted Jamali's offer of a cease-fire between conventional forces.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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