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Will the summit see the twain meet?

Ramananda Sengupta in Islamabad | January 04, 2004 01:31 IST

Will they, won't they?

That is the question on the lips of almost everyone in fortress Islamabad as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee arrived Saturday for the 12th SAARC summit, which starts January 4.

Speculation that some sort of bilateral meeting between Vajpayee and Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and/or President Pervez Musharraf was fuelled by a late night report on Pakistan radio that Indian High commissioner Shiv Shankar Menon had paid an unscheduled visit to Jamali late on Friday.

While admitting that such a visit had indeed taken place, Indian and Pakistani officials refused to divulge further details.

There were more policemen than civilians on the streets of Islamabad, parts of which were declared a 'red zone' where, according to Sheikh Manzoor, a policeman at a checkpost, even a 'rat couldn't get in without a proper pass'.

Vajpayee, who was accorded a red carpet welcome by Jamali at Islamabad's international airport, inspected the guard of honour as the national anthems of the two nations were played.  He then shook hands with Jamali for the benefit of the visual media before being whisked off in the special armoured BMW flown in earlier for him from Delhi.

Later in the evening, Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha addressed the concluding session of the SAARC journalists association in Rawalpindi almost at the same time that Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri addressed the media at the Holiday Inn in Islamabad, where the Indian and Pakistani journalists have separate media centres.

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The SAARC Summit 2004

Kasuri emphasised that he was wearing the hat of the chairman of SAARC council of ministers and hence would try and avoid queries on purely bilateral issues between India and Pakistan.

His opening remarks dwelt on the highlights of the two-day meetings of the 24th session of the council of ministers -- marked 'by goodwill, cooperation and understanding on a host of issues'.

"The rich and cordial ambience is reflected in the momentous decisions that we have taken today," he said, referring to the social charter, the SAFTA or free trade agreement, the additional protocol to the 1987 SAARC convention on the suppression of terrorism, (which essentially seeks to check funding of terrorists without defining a terrorist) and the draft text of the Islamabad declaration, all of which were approved and submitted to the SAARC heads of state or government for approval.

Also discussed was a report, which outlines a roadmap for a poverty free South Asia and the setting up of a South Asian Development Bank.

It was also decided that while Pakistan will host the 25th session of the council of ministers in July and that the next summit would be held in Dhaka in January 2005.

"The substantive work done during the SAARC preparatory meetings clearly indicates the making of a truly historic summit… I am confident that leaders would move this process further," he said.

But Kasuri's reluctance to discuss bilateral issues floundered in the face of persistent queries from the media that followed.

While reiterating President Pervez Musharraf's refrain that Pakistan was ready to meet with India anywhere, anyplace, he said the situation in the subcontinent had consistently been one of 'no war, no peace', which had actually led to three wars and countless skirmishes.

Pakistan was keen to go beyond this situation, but 'it takes two to tango', he said. "The ball is in India's court."

The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan had agreed on ways to resolve almost every issue plaguing the two nations at Agra in July 2001 before India rejected the treaty, he said.

But now, some of the Indian  'formulations in Delhi have gone beyond Agra'. "If a certain situation existed in Agra then why should India add to it? Neither country should change the formulations, which originated from the internal dynamics of that declaration which was never made public," he said.

Pointing out that the peace process, which had resulted in several confidence building measures had raised expectations across Pakistan, he said his country did not want these 'hopes to be dashed to the ground' by India's refusal to talk.

Three hours later, Indian Foreign Secretary Shashank addressed the media at the same hotel, though at the Indian media centre at the rooftop. But his briefing scheduled for 7 pm was delayed by an hour as he was stuck in a traffic jam caused by the intense police scrutiny of every vehicle on the roads of Islamabad.

Journalists invited to a special dinner and SAARC music Festival hosted by Pakistan minister for information and broadcasting Sheikh Rashid Ahmed (who was earlier replaced as Vajpayee's 'minister-in-waiting' at India's insistence by Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz) at 8 pm were thus caught in a bind, though most of them waited patiently.

Shashank too spoke of 'landmark achievements', which would take South Asian cooperation to the same levels found in regional groupings in Europe, Southeast Asia and the US. However, he said the intense media speculation had fuelled huge expectations from any bilateral meeting with Pakistani leaders, and 'something has to emerge to satisfy these expectations'.

So 'either we have to meet those expectations', or the interactions between the leaders at various sessions like the retreat hosted by Prime Minister Jamali and the official dinner hosted by president Musharraf would be limited to SAARC related matters.

Would these include one-on-one meetings? "One on one, but others can also be around," was his cryptic response.

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