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Benazir to tap Atal in Delhi

New Delhi, Dec. 5: Former Prime Minister and Pakistan Peopleís Party chairperson Benazir Bhutto arrives here next week on a private visit, but there are indications she will meet Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other leaders.

Benazir visits Delhi to attend a two-day conference on Indo-Pakistan relations and its impact on South Asia at a time when the neighbours are striving to put relations back on track and revive a dialogue.

An Awami National Party delegation led by its chief Afsandyar Wali will attend the conference, slated for Thursday and Friday. There are indications that Muttahida Qaumi Movement chief Altaf Hussain, whose party is a partner in Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamaliís government, might also attend. Wali and his team will get a chance to meet senior Indian leaders close on the heels of Vajpayee announcing that he will attend next monthís Saarc summit in Islamabad.

Benazir has been in self-imposed exile for years, shuttling between Dubai and London, though her party is still a major force in the country. Her supporters fear she may have to face trial for economic offences if she returns home.

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright will also attend the conference. Sources said Albright will meet old friend Jaswant Singh, now the finance minister, and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra.

South Block officials were unable to give details of Benazirís programme, but on her last private visit here two years ago she met the Prime Minister and other senior leaders. Bilateral relations were icy at the time of Benazirís last visit ó a fallout of the failure of the Agra summit and Indiaís subsequent decision to get tough on Pakistan-sponsored terrorist violence.

But things are different now. India-Pakistan relations will obviously feature prominently during the proposed Benazir-Vajpayee meeting but the reception the South Block accords the Pakistan Peopleís Party chief will be viewed with great interest. The presence of a former Prime Minister, and a democratically-elected one at that, gives South Block the chance to signal to President Pervez Musharraf that it is ready to build bridges with the Opposition if he acts difficult.

Vajpayee, currently in Nigeria, will meet Commonwealth leaders on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting there. Pakistan was suspended from the group after Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif in 1999.

In the past, India has blocked moves to re-admit Pakistan to the Commonwealth but in the light of the recent thaw in relations, it may not do so this time.

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