The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal’s Pak date set for January

New Delhi, July 10: India today joined other South Asian nations in accepting Pakistan’s proposal that the next Saarc summit be held in Islamabad between January 4 and 6.

If all goes well and India participates in the summit, it could lead to a meeting on the sidelines between Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali.

Despite the thaw, tit-for-tat politics continued as usual. When the Delhi-Lahore bus rolls again tomorrow, foreign minister Yashwant Sinha will not flag it off as scheduled. B.C. Khanduri, the minister for surface transport, will do the honours instead.

Islamabad had initially chosen Jamali to flag off the bus from Lahore. But once it got wind of the fact that Sinha, not Vajpayee, would be involved in Delhi, the programme was changed. Tourism minister Raees Munir Ahmed was told to take Jamali’s place.

In retaliation, Delhi has decided to replace Sinha with Khanduri. The bus will leave the capital on its 11-hour journey at 5 am.

“A consensus has been reached in the meeting of the senior officials on the proposal made by Pakistan that the next Saarc summit be held in Islamabad between January 4 and 6 next year,” foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said.

But there are two riders to India’s participation. One, there has to be substantial and visible movement on trade and economy in Saarc. Two, India expects cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere to stop and Islamabad to take urgent steps to dismantle its terrorist apparatus.

Sibal did not spell out the conditions but he implied that unless these were met, it would be difficult for the Prime Minister to travel to Pakistan, especially with four crucial Assembly elections slated for the year-end and speculation that next year’s general elections might be brought forward.

The Islamabad summit was scheduled for early this year but had to be called off when India refused to confirm the dates proposed by Pakistan. India had said that unless there was meaningful progress towards a free-trade pact and greater economic cooperation in Saarc, it made little sense for the heads of government to meet.

“Our concerns that before the heads of government meet, there will have to be a substantial economic agenda and good progress on the trade front remain,” the foreign secretary said this afternoon.

Sibal added: “The sense that I get from the meeting is that there should be progress on the trade front — both on the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement as well as the South Asian Free Trade Agreement.” Officials will meet in Kathmandu in September to finalise the treaty framework of Safta.

But the foreign secretary refused to give any indication whether the progress on trade will also lead to a bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan.

He justified holding bilateral meetings with counterparts from all Saarc nations except Pakistan, saying “the difficulties that India has in its relations with Pakistan” don’t exist with the other neighbours.

Vajpayee, by initiating the peace process, has given Islamabad another opportunity to normalise ties. “We have opened the door for Pakistan to walk in. But Pakistan should be able to walk in without the baggage of terrorism.”

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