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Nuclear-armed foes Pakistan, India talk peace over lunch

Leaders of Pakistan, India pledge to improve ties at highest-level meeting between the two nuclear-armed rivals in seven years

Reuters , Sunday 8 Apr 2012
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) smiles while speaking with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari during a meeting in New Delhi April 8, (Photo: Reuters).

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stood side by side in New Delhi on Sunday at the highest-level meeting on each other's soil in seven years as the nuclear-armed foes seek to normalise ties.

Relations have warmed since Pakistan promised its neighbour most-favoured-nation trade status last year, although a $10-million bounty offered by Washington for a Pakistani Islamist blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai has stirred old grievances.

Without giving details, the two leaders said they discussed a wide range of issues during a "fruitful" meeting before sharing lunch. Singh said he hoped to make his first visit to Pakistan at a convenient date.

"We would like to have better relations with India. We have spoken on all topics that we could have spoken about and we are hoping to meet on Pakistani soil very soon," Zardari said as the two men emerged from Singh's residence.

On his first visit to India as part of the 40-member delegation, Zardari's son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, stood behind the leaders at the briefing, possibly a sign of his growing role in politics.

"Relations between India and Pakistan should become normal. That's our common desire," Singh said. "We have a number of issues and we are willing to find tactical, pragmatic solutions to all those issues and that's the message that president Zardari and I would wish to convey."

Zardari's visit proceeded as rescue teams, backed by helicopters and sniffer dogs, searched for 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians engulfed by an avalanche on Saturday near the 6,000-metre-high (18,500-foot) Siachen glacier in Kashmir, known as the world's highest battlefield.

India and Pakistan fought two wars over Siachen and hundreds have died there, mostly from the inhospitable conditions.

India has yet to comment on the disaster.

Islamist shadow

The continued freedom of Islamist Hafiz Saeed, suspected of masterminding an attack by Pakistan-based gunmen on India's financial capital, Mumbai, in 2008 that killed 166 people, caused some friction in the days before the meeting.

India is furious that Pakistan has not detained Saeed, despite handing over a dossier of evidence against him. Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said on Friday that anyone with concrete proof to prosecute Saeed should present it to the courts.

And with Zardari and Singh both suffering major domestic problems, prospects are low for fixing the complex standoff over disputed Kashmir, the trigger of two of three wars between the two countries since independence from Britain in 1947.

Lasting Pakistan-India peace would go a long way to smoothing a perilous transition in Afghanistan as most NATO combat forces prepare to leave by the end of 2014.

India and Pakistan fought their most recent war in 1999, shortly after both sides declared they possessed nuclear weapons. Hundreds died on the disputed border in Kashmir before Pakistani troops and militants were forced to withdraw.

Zardari is also due to visit the shrine in western India of a revered Sufi Muslim saint seen as a symbol of harmony between South Asia's often competing religions.

Born in a village in what is now Pakistan, Singh has pushed for peace during his two terms in office, but his efforts were knocked off track by the 2008 ouster of former President Pervez Musharraf, with whom he had built trust.

The three-day rampage by ten Pakistani gunmen in Mumbai later that year derailed the peace process aimed at finding a solution to Kashmir and other feuds along one of the world's most heavily-armed borders. Talks only resumed one year ago.

Informal meetings, during international cricket matches or in this case before Zardari's pilgrimage to the Sufi shrine, have become the hallmark of Singh's diplomacy.

In November, Singh met Gilani in the Maldives and promised to open a new chapter in their troubled history.

Hopes are focused on resolving the conflict at the Siachen glacier and a dispute over an oil-rich river estuary called Sir Creek.

Musharraf, the last Pakistani head of state to visit India in 2005, has said both issues were as good as fixed while he was in office. 

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