| A guard sits outside the Saarc convention centre in Islamabad on Sunday. For the first time, Pakistan has positioned troops in hills overlooking the capital as part of security measures for the summit. Army helicopters will also take part in surveillance operations during the summit. Picture by Reuters
New Delhi, Dec. 28: Attempts are being made to arrange a meeting between President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on January 6 — the last day of the Saarc summit — in Islamabad.
No formal request has so far been made from either side, but sources said the Pakistanis were keen on a meeting between the two leaders while Vajpayee was in their country.
Ending speculation on whether the recent bids on Musharraf’s life would force Vajpayee to call off his visit, India yesterday announced that the Prime Minister would attend the Saarc summit to be held in the Pakistani capital between January 4 and 6.
Foreign secretary Shashank has said no meeting between the two leaders has been fixed. He pointed out that India has received requests from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka for bilateral meetings with the Prime Minister on the summit sidelines, but no such request has come from either Pakistan or Maldives.
His Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Khokhar, had echoed him in Islamabad yesterday. Khokhar said that barring India, all the other five members of the Saarc have sought bilateral meetings with Musharraf.
But officials from both sides made it clear that “no meeting has been fixed” does not necessarily mean that “no meeting would be fixed”. Stressing on the unpredictability of Indo-Pak relations, they said anything is possible. “If the two sides so desired, a meeting between Vajpayee and Musharraf could even be fixed within 15 minutes,” a senior South Block official said.
According to the Saarc schedule, meetings between officials of the foreign secretary level would be held in Islamabad between December 31 and January 1. The foreign ministers will start their meeting the next day to tie up loose ends and finalise the draft of the summit.
The summit will begin on January 4 with the seven heads of government making their speeches at the opening ceremony. That evening, the Pakistani President will host a banquet for the visiting leaders.
The next day, the Saarc leaders will “retreat” for an informal session which allows them to discuss any subject under the sun and also talk about issues of common concern and interest.
Traditionally, the “retreat” is held somewhere away from where the summit is on. In Pakistan, the ideal setting would have been the Murrie hills near Islamabad. However, rising security concerns have forced the Pakistani authorities to organise the “retreat” at Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s official residence.
On January 6, the concluding day of the summit, the Saarc Declaration will be released, followed by lunch and the Saarc leaders calling on the head of state of the host nation.
There is a possibility that when Vajpayee calls on the Pakistani President, it could be turned into a bilateral meeting. But even if this does not happen, there are indications that Musharraf might take the initiative to invite Vajpayee to tea. Shashank had made it clear yesterday that there would be several occasions for Vajpayee to meet his Pakistani counterpart during the summit. There is a possibility that the two leaders could take time off and convert this into a bilateral meeting.
Indian officials maintained that though no request would be made by Delhi for a bilateral meeting with the Pakistanis, Vajpayee would not turn down any offer made by the host nation.
But India insists that even if such a meeting takes place, it should not be called a bilateral meeting as a Vajpayee-Musharraf or a Vajpayee-Jamali meeting would only be in the nature of a “courtesy call”. “No substantial dialogue with Pakistan will be held till cross-border terrorism ends completely,” the foreign secretary has reiterated.
Given the circumstances, the pressure is more on Pakistan to have a bilateral meeting with India as this would give them the opportunity to say that the stalled dialogue has begun. This explains the attempts being made by Islamabad to fix a meeting between Musharraf and Vajpayee at the end of the summit.