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Play ball first, parleys later

New Delhi, Oct. 29: Cricket may well be an alien game to most Americans but the Bush administration feels resumption of sporting activity, like keenly contested one-dayers, could open the innings towards normalising Indo-Pak relations.

Stressing on a “bottom up” than a “bottom down” approach, US state department policy planning head Richard Haas today said Washington would welcome any steps taken by India and Pakistan that could lead to “thickening of relations” between them. Renewal of sporting activities and greater people-to-people contact could be a move in the right direction.

Late this evening, US secretary of state Colin Powell called up foreign minister Yashwant Sinha to review ties between the two sides. In a 10-minute conversation, the leaders dwelt on recent developments on the subcontinent and briefly assessed ties between Delhi and Washington in view of the series of high-level visits of US officials lined up over the next 10 days.

India has refused to hold talks with Pakistan till the Musharraf regime fulfils its commitment to completely stop cross-border terrorism and dismantle its terror apparatus. Delhi has also made it clear that cultural exchanges and sporting activities will not take place till security concerns are met.

Haas, who arrived here yesterday and left for Islamabad today, held wide-ranging discussions with the Indian leadership that included finance minister Jaswant Singh, defence minister George Fernandes and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra. He also interacted with foreign ministry officials over lunch. Yesterday, he met Sinha.

Haas is the latest among a string of senior Bush administration officials trying to find ways to bring down the political temperature in South Asia. He told Indian leaders that he would try to get a “better understanding” of Pakistani society and its foreign policy, specially after the elections which have thrown up new players, including the fundamentalists.

Acknowledging that cross-border terror must end, Haas agreed with India that infiltration across the Line of Control was continuing. He assured Delhi that during his talks with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and other senior leaders in Islamabad, he would take up the matter. But he felt that parallel steps to resume bilateral contact could be taken.

Haas clarified that the US’ emphasis was not on “map-making” but on finding a final solution to Indo-Pak hostilities. He suggested steps like resumption of rail and road links and more grassroots contact.

Haass said a “new opportunity” has come in the wake of important developments like the Jammu and Kashmir elections. “But the question is what you do with this new opportunity'” he asked and suggested efforts for people-to-people contacts.

Asked whether Washington wanted Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to go to Islamabad for the Saarc summit in January, Haass said: “This is a decision for the Prime Minister and the Government of India to take. I don’t want to give any specific advice.”

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