ISLAMABAD: Foreign ministers of seven South Asian nations kicked off a two-day meeting in Islamabad yesterday with all eyes on whether India and Pakistan will use the occasion to advance a fragile peace process.
The foreign ministers of Pakistan and India shook hands at the start of the meeting, which is expected to focus on boosting free trade in the region among other issues and prepare the way for a three-day summit of heads of government starting tomorrow.
Attention is firmly focused on today's arrival of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee less than two years after the nuclear-armed rivals came perilously close to war.
Speaking to reporters, Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha did not rule out the possibility of ice-breaking one-on-one talks between Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart Zafarullah Khan or President Pervez Musharraf on the summit sidelines.
“We have said that it has not been decided yet,” he told newsmen. “Let the prime minister come tomorrow.”
Sinha said the leaders would in any case be meeting at the summit. “They will be meeting socially,” he added.
Discussion of bilateral issues at the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) summit is forbidden by the organisation's charter, but Musharraf and Vajpayee may use the occasion to advance the shaky process of reconciliation.
A breakthrough in their dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir is seen as unlikely, but the very fact that Vajpayee is visiting Pakistan for the summit is seen as a sign of progress.
At best, diplomats say, there is a chance the two sides might quietly agree to open a lower-level dialogue between foreign ministry bureaucrats.
The leaders of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka are expected to ink a South Asian Free Trade Agreement at their summit, which in itself is seen as a sign of rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad. – Reuters
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