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Pervez drops plebiscite stand
- Pak goes ‘halfway’, awaits response

Islamabad, Dec. 18: Pervez Musharraf has offered to drop a 50-year-old demand for a UN-mandated plebiscite over Kashmir and meet India “halfway” in a bid for peace in the subcontinent.

“We are for United Nations Security Council resolutions. However, now we have left that aside,” President Musharraf told Reuters in an interview three weeks before the Saarc summit that will be attended by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Musharraf’s proposal has opened a new window of opportunity to address one of the world’s most dangerous disputes, even if massive hurdles remain on the path to peace.

The Simla Agreement of 1972 and the Lahore Declaration of 1999 implicitly exclude a UN role by speaking of settlements through “bilateral talks”. But this is the first time a Pakistani President has openly said that he was willing to forego the demand for a UN referendum.

For more than 50 years, Pakistan has insisted on a plebiscite to allow people in Kashmir to decide between joining India or Pakistan, a position backed by a series of UN Security Council resolutions in the late 1940s. India controls around 45 per cent of Kashmir.

Delhi did not react officially but the cabinet committee on security, which is meeting tomorrow, may discuss the issue.

Pakistani analysts were quick to term Musharraf’s initiative “bold”, saying it was now India’s turn to reciprocate.

If the new proposal gets off the ground, it will also mean that Musharraf has set aside his aversion to the Nawaz Sharif peace formula and is willing to pick up the Lahore thread.

“Musharraf’s statement is in fact continuity of what the two countries had agreed in Lahore in 1999 — they should give up the rigid positions on Kashmir and adopt a flexible approach,” former Pakistan foreign secretary Niaz A. Naik said.

Masood Mehdi, a Pakistani diplomat, said Vajpayee should now come out with an “imaginative response”, which could be in the form of reducing the number of troops in Indian Kashmir.

Former Indian foreign secretary J.. Dixit said Musharraf’s offer marked an “important shift in policy”.

During the Reuters interview, Musharraf said he was prepared to be “bold and flexible” in an attempt to resolve the dispute over Kashmir.

“If we want to resolve this issue, both sides need to talk to each other with flexibility, coming beyond stated positions, meeting halfway somewhere,” he said. “We are prepared to rise to the occasion, India has to be flexible also.”

Musharraf said Vajpayee should not miss the chance to discuss Kashmir during January’s summit, but said he would not be pleading for an audience with the Indian leader.

In Islamabad, Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group thinktank said the Pakistani military realised it had to give ground if it was to retain any sympathy abroad. “If they keep on insisting on a plebiscite, it is not going anywhere, and they are also losing ground to India internationally,” she said. “In a way, it is a realisation that if they keep on asking for everything they won’t get anything.”

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