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Salman stirs Delhi hopes

New Delhi, April 14: A former Pakistani foreign secretary who played a key role in bringing Delhi and Islamabad back to the talks table after the 26/11 attacks was today named his country’s high commissioner to India, fuelling hopes of a further thaw in ties.

Pakistan foreign office spokesperson Moazzam Ahmed Khan made the announcement in Islamabad, saying Salman Bashir had been appointed envoy in Delhi.

South Block looked ahead with optimism to Bashir’s appointment. Delhi believes Bashir, as Islamabad’s envoy, will help consolidate the thaw in cross-border relations.

The appointment came on a day the commerce ministers of the two countries agreed that the neighbours should open more routes to increase bilateral trade.

Bashir, who is likely to assume office next week, was integral to the resumption of the composite dialogue Delhi had snapped after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.

It was Bashir and then Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao who restarted the dialogue in Thimphu in February 2011.

The 60-year-old’s close links with Pakistan’s army establishment and the rapport he shared with Rao since the two served as their country’s ambassadors in Beijing in 2006-08 gave Delhi enough confidence to resume the dialogue with Islamabad.

Bashir has also worked closely with Rao’s successor Ranjan Mathai since August to consolidate the dialogue process to the extent that the two sides are now looking at resolving the Sir Creek maritime boundary dispute and even discuss a possible demilitarisation of Siachen.

The meetings, over the next couple of months, will culminate in a trip to Pakistan by external affairs minister S.M. Krishna and possibly even a visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Bashir, who accompanied President Asif Ali Zardari during his private visit to India earlier this week, has said he would work to pave the way for a trip to Islamabad by Singh.

Pakistan is the only neighbour Singh is yet to visit as Prime Minister. He is scheduled to visit Myanmar between May 28 and 30.

Bashir, who succeeds Shahid Malik as Islamabad’s envoy in New Delhi, served as foreign secretary from 2008 to March 2012. He has also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Denmark, Lithuania, China and Mongolia apart from a stint at the UN in Geneva.

Bashir’s assumption of his new office should start on a positive note with Indian courts likely to allow an ailing Pakistani to return to his country. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court had granted bail to Syed Mohammed Khalil Chishty — an 80-year-old who was serving a life term for a murder he got sucked into — a day after the former professor figured in the talks Singh hosted for Zardari.

Zardari’s appeal came in a personal letter, where he sought Singh’s “indulgence” to “intervene” and allow the professor’s “release and repatriation to Pakistan on humanitarian grounds”.

“Your kind gesture would add momentum to the good will generated after resumption of the Composite Dialogue between the two countries,” the letter said.