The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Delhi clears air on Saarc sideshow

New Delhi, June 28: India has decided to keep the focus of the forthcoming Saarc foreign secretaries’ meeting in Kathmandu on regional issues and not turn it into a bilateral exercise, despite the hype created by Pakistan.

The foreign secretaries of the seven Saarc countries are scheduled to meet between July 9 and 10 in Kathmandu to finalise the draft on a preferential trade agreement and a free trade area in South Asia. Those who will be present include foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal and his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Khokar.

However, South Block has made it clear that it is not a venue for a meeting between Sibal and Khokar. “It should not be construed as a foreign secretary-level meeting between India and Pakistan,” a senior foreign ministry official said.

The official emphasised that “Delhi was not keen on any bilateral meeting, on the sidelines of the Kathmandu meet, with Pakistan. At least that is our position as of today”.

Khokar, who was in the US recently, told his American interlocutors that the much-awaited foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan would take place in Kathmandu when he will meet Sibal for the Saarc standing committee meeting.

The Pakistanis gave the Bush administration the impression that a successful completion of the talks between Khokar and Sibal would lead to a summit meeting between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers in Islamabad later this year.

Aware of the Pakistani gameplan to turn the Saarc meeting into an Indo-Pak sideshow, South Block has made it clear that the forthcoming Kathmandu meeting is meant to hammer out differences between the member countries on trade.

A successful outcome of the Kathmandu meeting, which can only happen if Pakistan agrees to have normal trade relations with India, is likely to play an important role in normalising relations between the two countries and pave the way for early resumption of a dialogue.

However, at the moment, Delhi is not willing to jump the gun. It insists that next month’s meeting of foreign secretaries is not an exclusive affair between India and Pakistan.

“The Indian foreign secretary may stop to greet his Pakistani counterpart and the two may even exchange pleasantries, but it should not be seen as a meeting on the sidelines between the two sides,” a senior foreign ministry official said.

“India is committed to the peace process and normalising relations with Pakistan,” a senior South Block official said.

The official, however, pointed out that it was a step-by-step approach and Delhi was totally against rushing into a summit at the highest political level or even a dialogue with Pakistan unless its basic concerns on cross-border terrorism were addressed.

The official said the stress at the moment was on re-establishing some of the links between the two countries that were snapped in the wake of the December 2001 attack on Parliament.

The two countries have held talks on the resumption of the Lahore-Delhi bus service, India has sought dates from Pakistan for a technical-level discussion on restoring air links, including overflight rights, between the two sides.

Both have appointed new high commissioners in each other’s capitals and there are indications that if everything goes off well, the rail link between the two countries will also be re-established.

“But these are all steps to re-establish links and not resuming the dialogue,” the official said. He argued that Pakistan was keen to re-start the dialogue at the earliest and discuss the issue of Kashmir, while ignoring other issues.

The official pointed out that while India is not averse to a discussion on any subject at the bilateral tract with Pakistan, including Kashmir, it would not do so unless the right atmosphere for holding such a dialogue is created.

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