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PAKISTAN WEIGHS SARTAJ TRIP FACE-SAVER 

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FROM K.P. NAYAR   |     |   Published 31.05.99, 12:00 AM

New Delhi, May 31 :     Notwithstanding the current conflict in the Kargil sector, the impending visit of Pakistani foreign minister Sartaj Aziz is expected to lead to a resumption of foreign secretary-level talks between Islamabad and New Delhi. Authoritative sources in the government told The Telegraph that South Block had conveyed to Pakistan?s foreign ministry a time frame for talks between the two foreign secretaries and other officials under the composite dialogue agreed in 1997. Sources said the new time frame communicated to Islamabad was being treated here as ?academic? in view of the current state of their relations, but several developments on Monday have led South Block to look at the question of bilateral talks in a more positive framework. First, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan?s chief of army staff, abruptly returned home on Monday cutting short a visit to China and several other countries which would have brought him home only on Thursday. Despite Opposition criticism about defence minister George Fernandes? statement accusing the Pakistan army of plotting Kargil and exonerating Islamabad?s civilian leadership of complicity in the army conspiracy, the BJP-led government largely shares the defence minister?s assessment. This assessment is strongly backed by intelligence reports in the government?s possession. This makes Gen. Musharraf the key player in the current crisis with India. He is now scheduled to visit the forward areas in a day or two and then share his views on the situation with Pakistan?s civilian and military leaders. Gen. Musharraf had visited Skardu ? the brigade headquarters from where the Kargil operations are being directed by Pakistan?s army ? just before his departure for China and earlier in February when the Kargil conspiracy was being hatched. The army chief had also warned India against the use of air power in the Kargil sector just before he left for Beijing. Following the warning from Gen. Musharraf, his men fired at an Indian Air Force Canberra survey plane on May 21 despite South Block?s notice to Pakistan about survey flights between May 19 and 28. The attack on the Canberra plane triggered the Indian air action. Gen. Musharraf is, therefore, the most important player in the current conflict: his abrupt return and planned visit to forward areas are seen to suggest a rethink within the Pakistan army about the course of the Kargil developments. India?s offer on Monday to talk to Pakistan without any pre-conditions would also lead to a resumption of foreign secretary-level talks, sources here said. The Pakistanis have already indicated that what they are looking for is a face-saving formula out of the Kargil tangle: for this, they will have to give the impression back home that efforts were being made to solve the Kashmir dispute through talks. India is expected tell Aziz that the only path to progress on Kashmir is through the stalled foreign secretary dialogue. While cosmetic changes in the dialogue process are not being ruled out, what the Aziz visit is expected to lead to is a resumption of these talks. India?s determination, meanwhile, to push ahead with the airstrikes and ground action against the infiltrators has been compounded by more bad news for Pakistan on Monday. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) issued a statement after a Cabinet meeting which called upon India and Pakistan to work out a solution between themselves through ?increased communication and bilateral negotiations?. Galling for Pakistan was the complete absence to any direct reference to Kashmir in the statement by UAE, which has in the past tilted towards Islamabad and is one of few countries to have recognised the Taliban government in Kabul. China, another trusted friend of Islamabad, has already told New Delhi at two separate levels of government that Beijing favours direct, bilateral talks between India and Pakistan to solve the current crisis.    
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