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Clean-up hope for Siachen

Islamabad, Jan. 12: The stalemated India-Pakistan peace process may be on the verge of a breakthrough when external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee arrives in Islamabad tomorrow, with India likely to propose that both countries begin the process of cleaning up the Siachen glacier.

Mukherjee, accompanied by foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, will meet the power triumvirate in Pakistan tomorrow: President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and foreign minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri.

Mukherjee is carrying with him a letter from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for Musharraf, in addition to the one inviting him to the 14th Saarc summit, likely to be held in New Delhi in early April.

The series of discussions tomorrow will also include talks on a visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan. Islamabad wants the Prime Minister to visit before the Saarc summit. But some feel that Singh could even come after the summit — but before elections are held in Pakistan in August -- so as to give Musharraf the Indian advantage.

It is believed that Mukherjee’s proposal could revolve around the cleaning up of the Siachen glacier, whose heights have been held by Indian troops since 1984, thereby turning it into a “mountain of peace’’.

This phrase was used by Singh when he visited the Siachen base camp last year.

The government will be able to “sell’’ such a proposal to the Opposition, sources said, by pointing out that Pakistan has agreed to authenticate the ground positions of Indian troops on the Saltoro ridge on maps.

Moreover, Islamabad has told New Delhi that consequent to redeployment to their respective base camps, both sides could institute some sort of a joint monitoring mechanism to allay fears of any Pakistani incursion into Indian territory, such as in Kargil.

Mukherjee could propose to the Pakistani side that even as both sides discuss and debate a schedule of disengagement of their troops from the Siachen heights — Indian troops have the advantage as they stand on top of the Saltoro ridge — they could begin removing the hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste that has accumulated on Siachen since their cold war began here in 1984.

Jointly cleaning the mountain of toxic waste — which flows into the Nubra valley and downstream into the Indus river — by mountaineers and soldiers would be the biggest confidence-building measure of its time.

Such an initiative would be instrumental in building trust that could lead to an agreement on the redeployment of soldiers from Siachen.

In turn, that could be the key that cracks open the “Kashmir dispute’’ that has bedevilled the bilateral relationship since 1984.

Sources pointed out that an agreement on Siachen — which both countries nearly reached in 1989, and again in 1992 — could be one highlight of the Prime Minister’s visit to Pakistan, whenever it takes place.

India has argued that unless Pakistan publicly agrees to authenticate ground positions of Indian soldiers on maps, it cannot agree to any agreement on Siachen. The army has repeatedly said that in case of any Pakistani incursion into the Kashmir area, as in Kargil, it will not be able to retake the heights once it has withdrawn from them.

However, over the last six months, India and Pakistan have debated the Siachen issue in considerable detail: once, on the eve of the defence secretary-level talks in August 2006 in Delhi, and then during the foreign secretary-level dialogue (between Shiv Shankar Menon and Riaz Mohammed Khan) in November.

But sources in the Pakistani establishment also insist that any agreement on Siachen cannot mean that India “claims’’ the territory from which it has withdrawn.

Turning Siachen into a peace mountain would, naturally, preclude such a claim. Moreover, the Americans, who got Nawaz Sharif in 1999 to order his army back from the Indian side of the Line of Control at Kargil, could also monitor any such extra-territorial movement.

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