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Trade relief hope for peace push

New Delhi, July 3: There is a strong possibility that Pakistan may offer substantial trade concessions to India in the next few days.

If that happens, it will give a major boost to the peace process between the neighbours and brighten the chances of a summit between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, by the year-end.

Indications are that Pakistan may remove 73 items from the negative list in its trade dealings with India. The decision may be formally announced either before or at the forthcoming Saarc senior officials’ meeting in Kathmandu next week.

“If that happens, it will be a very positive development,” a senior foreign ministry official said. He pointed out that the 73 items in question had been put on the negative list by Pakistan in 1998 and several rounds of negotiations have failed to knock them off the list.

Their removal from the negative list might be viewed by some in India as too little, too late. But many feel this can be the first big step towards normalising bilateral trade relations.

Foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal and his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Khokar, will participate along with others in the Saarc meet scheduled from July 9 to 11. Among the decisions the foreign secretaries of the South Asian nations are likely to take is to finalise the date for the Saarc summit in Islamabad.

Pakistan has suggested a date at the year-end, but the other Saarc members are yet to decide whether December was a good time. India has maintained that a summit will be meaningless unless the members manage to make substantial progress on the economic front.

The possible trade concessions may be offered by Pakistan in the Saarc forum and not directly to India. But since the 73 items were put by Pakistan on the negative list with India in mind, their removal will directly benefit Delhi.

In May this year, Jamali had offered 250 items India could trade in while announcing a series of confidence-building measures in response to Delhi’s nomination of a new high commissioner for Islamabad.

But Delhi soon found out that 146 of the items were on the negative list.

Pakistani officials said no decision has yet been taken on the 146 items. Neither are they willing to confirm whether an announcement on the 73 items will take place in the next few days.

Officials in South Block pointed out that there have been unofficial reports that Islamabad is willing to remove the 73 items from the negative list.

They argued that in the new financial year — which began from July 1 — Pakistan is scheduled to come out with its new export-import policy. If it takes a decision on the 73 items, it will be reflected in their gazette. “We cannot take a stand on the issue unless we see the announcement of their removal from the negative list in the official gazette,” an official said.

The Indian foreign ministry has made it clear that the Kathmandu meeting would not be a bilateral one and the focus will remain firmly on Saarc-related issues, particularly trade. But if Pakistan finally decides on removing some of the tariff barriers, it may help clear the air between the neighbours and pave the way for resuming the stalled dialogue.

Musharraf on talks

Peace talks could start soon and should not be derailed by trouble in Kashmir, Reuters reported Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as saying today.

“We are moving towards talks. There are overtures from both sides,” Musharraf told a news briefing at a Paris conference on investment opportunities in Pakistan.

Violence in Kashmir goes on, despite steps to improve ties, including plans to resume bus services between the two countries this month. Militants stormed an army camp at Sunjwan in Jammu, killing 12 soldiers, on Saturday. Pakistan had condemned the attack, describing it as a “terrorist act”.

“It (trouble in Kashmir) must not upset the process of peace,” said Musharraf. “If there are extremists who want to derail the peace process, they should not stand in the way of two governments who want peace.”

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