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Pervez in air, Putin calls PM

New Delhi, Feb. 4: Pervez Musharraf’s much-touted Russia visit has turned a non-starter even before it has begun.

Minutes before his aircraft was to touch down in Moscow, his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, phoned Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for “bilateral consultation” and to rally behind India’s stand that no dialogue with Pakistan was possible till cross-border terrorism was completely stopped.

Dashing the Pakistan President’s hopes of building a relationship between Moscow and Islamabad “independent” of Delhi, Putin told Vajpayee in a 15-minute chat that he “fully understood and appreciated” India’s stand.

The conversation could not have been better timed. Not only did Putin dial Vajpayee as Russian officials were getting ready to receive Musharraf at the airport, he also gave the Prime Minister some good news to take to the Cabinet meeting that began half-an-hour later.

Musharraf’s three-day visit to Russia is the first by a Pakistan President in 20 years. It raised much hope in Pakistan and perhaps some concern in India. But Putin’s unambiguous signal today made it clear that Russia was in no mood to ditch its “time-tested” ally in favour of Pakistan.

South Block officials said Putin and Vajpayee had a cordial exchange and expressed “full satisfaction” with the development of bilateral relations. They also looked forward to meeting each other in St Petersburg in May.

Indian officials said Putin’s call reflected the “high level of mutual trust that exists between the leaders of the two countries”. “No message from a friend can be clearer than this,” said one.

Musharraf, in recent interviews, had been hyping his visit, saying Moscow’s relations with Islamabad could be independent of India or a third country. He also emphasised that one of his main aims was to seek Putin’s intervention in getting India to resume talks.

Musharraf even hinted that if his visit went off well, he was willing to open the huge arms market in Pakistan to Russia. He may have been encouraged by what Putin did during an Asian Security Summit in Almaty last year. Putin had then invited Musharraf and Vajpayee to Moscow to settle differences and resume dialogue. But Vajpayee politely turned down the invitation.

Putin told Vajpayee today what Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko already laid out yesterday.

“The dialogue between the two countries could be resumed given Pakistan meets its obligations to bar militants from crossing the Line of Control into Jammu and Kashmir and to liquidate terrorist infrastructure,” Yakovenko had said.

“We pay Pakistan its due for participation in the anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan and Musharraf administration’s moves to neutralise Islamic militant organisations in Pakistan.

“But we expect Islamabad to fulfil its anti-terror obligations before the world community to put an end to the proliferation of terrorists escaping vengeance to other countries.”

By repeating the same position, Putin has made it clear that his discussions with Musharraf on South Asia and ways to normalise relations with India will be within this framework.

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