June 26: Leaving behind an unsettled Islamabad, Riaz Khokar arrived for crucial talks in Delhi to an eruption of violence in Jammu and Kashmir.
The militancy-wracked state, where 12 people were gunned down in their homes and 60 civilians trapped in a mosque where militants had holed up, is on the agenda of the meeting between the Pakistan foreign secretary and his Indian counterpart Shashank.
On the eve of the talks, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali handed in his resignation, ending a 19-month term, in a dramatic turnaround from a show of confidence yesterday. Delhi said the move would have no impact on its dialogue with Islamabad, spearheaded by Pervez Musharraf.
While both sides want to produce an impression of business as usual and success because the talks are too important and too high profile in the eyes of the world, there is no denying that a degree of uncertainty has been added to the proceedings by today’s events in Islamabad.
Jamali is to be replaced by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain as interim Prime Minister and, after completion of his term, by Shaukat Aziz, an economist who was finance minister in the outgoing cabinet. Hussain, a known hardliner on India, is suffering from cancer.
The key players in the dialogue, the two national security advisers J.. Dixit and Tariq Aziz, remain unaffected. At their secret meeting in Amritsar a few days ago, the two men had sealed the outcome of Sunday’s talks, leaving the foreign secretaries to merely go through the formality of discussing what had already been decided.
It is unclear whether Jamali’s resignation will also mean changes in cabinet and a new foreign minister. What remains to be seen is whether Khokar, who was out of the picture in Amritsar this month, will assert himself and try to put his stamp on the talks on Sunday in view of the government changes. Khokar and Dixit have a long history of animosity and mistrust for each other.
Khokar said the change of Prime Minister will have no bearing on the talks. At a reception hosted in his honour by Pakistani high commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan, he said: “Why should it affect' This is part of the democratic process.”
The foreign secretary set the tone of the two-day dialogue, saying he was here to discuss “the fundamental issue of Jammu and Kashmir”, besides confidence-building measures, peace and security. The comments made it clear where Pakistan’s emphasis lies.
Renewed violence today is being seen as an attempt by militants to grab attention as the two sides head into talks, the first on Kashmir since the failed Agra summit of 2001.
Twelve people, among whom four were children, were killed as they were sleeping when militants barged into their homes at a Poonch village in Jammu early this morning.
In a village near Srinagar, 60 devotees were trapped inside a mosque when militants on the run took shelter there. Security forces on the trail of the killers of railway engineer Sudhir Pundir and his brother Sandeep, whose bodies were found in the area yesterday, exchanged fire with the militants and evacuated the civilians. An army jawan was killed in the operation at Pulwama, 70 km from the capital. Two militants also died.
Khokar began his visit with a two-hour meeting with separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The pro-Pakistan leader is believed to have been told to align with Itihadi force, an amalgam of neutral separatist leaders against direct talks with the Centre.