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Natwar to visit Pak

New Delhi, Jan. 13: Foreign minister Natwar Singh will visit Pakistan between February 15 and 17 to hold talks with his counterpart Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri on the 'composite dialogue', which includes discussions on Jammu and Kashmir and ensuring that the peace process stays on track.

Singh will be the first foreign minister in 17 years to make a bilateral visit to Pakistan, after P.V. Narasimha Rao's visit as external affairs minister in 1988. Singh's proposed visit will give the two sides the time and the opportunity to hold detailed discussions on the peace process.

The visit gathers significance as it comes at a time when sections in Islamabad have started questioning whether the peace process is serving any purpose.

The foreign minister and other Indian officials will get the opportunity of explaining to Pakistan that no quick-fix solutions are possible in Kashmir and the only pragmatic way is to take steps to restore trust and confidence between the two sides.

However, it is not clear whether the minister's trip will precede or follow the Saarc summit in Dhaka, which was scheduled to be held early this month but was called off in the wake of the tsunami tragedy in South Asia.

Dhaka has informally proposed February 7-9 as the rescheduled dates for the summit, but Delhi is keen that it be held between February 6-8 as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a prior engagement on February 9.

If the Saarc summit is held early, there is also a possibility of a meeting ' on its sidelines ' between the Indian Prime Minister and his Pakistani counterpart, Shaukat Aziz.

On a day when the dates of the foreign minister's visit was announced by the external affairs ministry, visiting US Senator Sam Brownback made it clear that the proposed delivery of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan will be 'problematic' and 'highly unlikely'.

The senator is in Delhi with a group of US Congressmen to hold talks with the Indian leadership on strengthening bilateral relations and other regional and international developments.

Brownback had shot to fame with his amendment in the Senate about five years ago that led to the resumption of military aid from Washington to Islamabad. Though it also led to the easing of US sanctions on India in the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests, Pakistan became the main beneficiary of his amendment.

'The potential sale of F-16s to Pakistan is highly problematic and seems highly unlikely,' Brownback said.

The senator indicated that the proposal will be opposed when it comes up for approval in the US Congress.

The US delegation discussed ' with Indian leaders ' India-Pakistan relations, particularly the peace process. The Congressmen met the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and finance minister P. Chidambaram.

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