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Saarc litmus test for Pak

New Delhi, May 13: Pakistan’s intention of normalising ties with India will be put to test at next month’s Saarc meeting, which will try to finalise the draft for a free trade agreement among the seven South Asian nations.

The meeting, scheduled for the first week of June in Kathmandu, will be the first Saarc gathering at the official level since last October when members failed to put in place a preferential trade arrangement — a precursor to the free trade agreement — mainly because of strained India-Pakistan relations.

If an agreed draft on the free trade area is arrived at by officials, it could also pave the way for a year-end Saarc Summit in Islamabad — a possibility which could lead to a meeting on the sidelines between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan.

India today formally announced the name of Shiv Shankar Menon as its new high commissioner to Islamabad. Pakistan is yet to nominate its envoy.

Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali had last week announced trade concessions to India on 78 items. But Delhi had found the offer “inadequate.”

Agency reports from Islamabad quoted trade minister Humayun Akhtar as saying Pakistan was ready to resume trade relations with India both at the bilateral level and under the Saarc umbrella as soon as talks resumed.

“As soon as dialogue between the two countries starts, we are ready to do trade with India,” Akhtar was quoted as having told BBC radio yesterday.

Trade between the two countries never stopped, so it is not very clear what the Pakistan minister meant. It is possible that he was hinting at enhancing trade co-operation. Officials in Delhi said they would wait and see.

South Block officials pointed out that the Kathmandu meeting will be test of Pakistan’s intention. Sources in the foreign ministry said Pakistan has in the past been reluctant to normalise trade relations with India.

India has extended tariff concessions on 393 items. But at the last Safta meeting, Pakistan offered only 250 items, of which 146 were on its “negative list”.

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