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Peace process in aviation air pocket

Islamabad/New Delhi, Aug. 28: The India-Pakistan peace process faltered today after the two-day talks on resuming civil aviation links ended in failure.

The talks ran into rough weather when the Indian team objected to Pakistan’s demand for a mechanism preventing unilateral suspension of overflights by either side.

Led by director-general of civil aviation Satendra Singh, the team pointed out the proposal was absent in the four-point agenda circulated early this month. The proposal required study, Singh was quoted as saying, as every sovereign country had the right to allow or disallow overflights.

“An agreement could easily have been reached. It is regretted that this did not happen because of Pakistan’s negative approach and its attempts to bring in extraneous issues,” foreign ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna said in Delhi.

Faced with Islamabad’s insistence on a categoric assurance, Delhi said Pakistan would in turn have to assure that it would not promote terrorism against India, or try to unilaterally alter the Line of Control or do anything that violates the Simla Agreement. Delhi had suspended air links after the attack on Parliament in December 2001.

“Discussions on resumption of point-to-point services, frequencies, places etc had been constructive and positive. There was even an exchange of views on possibility of additional frequencies and places to be covered,” an official source said in Delhi.

“But an agreement could not be reached because Pakistan was not ready to give overflight facilities.”

The hitch notwithstanding, the Pakistan team — led by Maj. Gen. (Retd) Ashraf Chaudhry, joint secretary in the defence ministry — said air links could be resumed, pending a decision on overflights.

This was evident in the carefully worded joint statement the teams issued after the talks at a five-star hotel in Rawalpindi. “Talks were held in a cordial and business-like atmosphere, providing an opportunity to the two sides to understand each other’s position. It was decided to continue the talks on mutually agreed dates.”

The proposed second round of talks would probably be held in Delhi, Pakistan officials said. This would also push the talks Islamabad had proposed on resuming Samjhauta Express to late September, by when officials hope the aviation standoff would have been sorted out.

Officials from both sides, however, agreed to consider increasing the number of flights and destinations. There was also a general understanding on considering the possibility of allowing private airlines to operate flights to both countries.

According to a Pakistan civil aviation authority spokesman, Islamabad called for an “abiding commitment to all principles and norms of international civil aviation and asked India to agree to a mechanism which ensures continuity of air links and overflights facility in future”.

But Indian officials argued that Pakistan’s insistence on a guarantee was clearly an excuse.

“They have sought no guarantees that there would be no disruption in future of the Delhi-Lahore bus service or any other services between the two countries. Picking up overflights clearly indicates some other intention,” an official said.

Though many bilateral hurdles were overcome after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee initiated the peace process, resumption of aviation links continued to hang fire as Pakistan dragged its feet.

A major reason was Islamabad’s perception that Delhi had more to lose as long as air links remained suspended because most Indian flights use Pakistan airspace.

India also severed air links with Pakistan in 1971. The airlines of both countries had suffered financial losses.

PIA was operating 12 flights a week to India and earning a net profit of Rs 200 million before the latest snapping of air links.

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