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Rivalry dominates South Asian talks

Prime ministers meet after tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries overshadow a regional summit.
The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, right, shakes hands with the Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani before the bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit.
The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, right, shakes hands with the Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani before the bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit.

ISLAMABAD // An annual meeting of South Asian countries whose agenda this year was to include the rising cost of fuel and food, combating terrorism and alleviating poverty was overshadowed today before it even began by the latest chapter in the long rivalry between India and Pakistan. Pakistan's relationship with India, its nuclear rival, is strained over the attack on the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan last month and recent clashes in disputed Kashmir. Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister who is the outgoing chairman of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, met with Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister of Pakistan, at the Saarc meeting in Colombo. The talks were the first between the two men and the highest-level discussions between the two countries in more than one year. At the heart of their conversation are new questions about Pakistan's anti-extremism credentials as it accuses New Delhi and Kabul for the first time of sponsoring Taliban militants on its own soil. The accusation marks a major hardening of Pakistan's stance amid claims from the United States, India and Afghanistan that the ISI spy agency was involved in the bombing of the Indian Embassy on July 7. "The time has come for us to reveal the facts and tell the world how outside forces are creating troubles in Pakistan," said Rehman Malik, the interior ministry adviser to Mr Gilani. "India wants to destabilise Fata [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. What India and [the Afghan president Hamid] Karzai are doing must stop," Mr Malik said in Washington last week. Yet both countries put their best face on at the Saarc meeting. "We have a joint responsibility to fight this menace [terrorism]; we need to fight this menace individually and collectively," Mr Gilani said in his speech. "Pakistan condemns the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul though Pakistan has suffered terrorism the most," Mr Gilani said. After the two men met, an Indian foreign ministry official said Pakistan had offered to investigate the bomb attack. Mr Gilani will also discuss the bombing with the Afghanistan president today. "Prime Minister Gilani said that he would conduct an independent investigation," Shiv Shankar Menon, India's foreign secretary, told reporters. Mr Menon said Mr Gilani also asked Mr Singh to share any information India might have on the attack. "He said he would look into the matter and try and get to the root of it." But Pakistani security officials have been talking privately about India's alleged involvement in the tribal belt for several months, and they insist the claims are not a tit-for-tat response to the pressure on Islamabad. The New York Times reported last week that the United States has determined that the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) was involved in the suicide attack on the Indian Embassy, which killed 58 people, including two Indian diplomats. But the Pakistani officials said that the scale of militancy in the north-western tribal zone - pinpointed by the United States as a haven for al Qa'eda and the Taliban - means outside forces must be involved. "These militants are very well funded, and that raises huge questions," Owais Ahmed Ghani, the governor of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), said in an interview. "With all their logistics, their rations, their mobility, salaries, the weapons, they need an annual budget of up to three billion rupees [Dh260 million]. "Obviously Pakistan is not giving it to them, so where are the other sources?" Mr Ghani said some money was coming from the heroin trade in Afghanistan, but said there was still a shortfall. The governor then raised questions over the number of Indian consulates in eastern Afghan cities that border Pakistan, such as Kandahar, Khost and Jalalabad, hinting that they were involved in spy activities. He said the government had brought up the issue with Kabul and New Delhi. "India has the largest diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, but is there a big Indian community there? How many visas have been issued? Those are the questions we would like to know," Mr Ghani said. Similar allegations of foreign involvement came from Malick Navid, the inspector general and the police chief of NWFP. "We have enemies outside. Their involvement cannot be ruled out," Mr Navid said in an interview. "Otherwise how could you manage such a massive movement, the vehicles, the maintenance and training of large number of men?" Asked if he was referring to the involvement of India, Mr Malick said: "There is a lot of talk about this. It is very difficult to clearly mention these things, but there are people who point fingers at our enemies." But the salvos from Pakistan will raise questions about whether Islamabad is taking seriously the calls from Washington, New Delhi and Kabul to put its house in order. The New York Times report, strongly denied by Pakistan, said Pakistan was viewed as "no longer a fully reliable American partner" and that George W Bush confronted Mr Gilani about the divided loyalties of the ISI when they met on Monday. Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper reported last week that Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, denied the group received any help from India. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's information minister, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying on Friday that Islamabad needed to "weed out" pro-Taliban elements in the ISI. But she later issued a statement saying her quotes had been taken out of context. She said that there was "no question of any purge in the ISI". "The Pakistani accusations are basically retaliatory," said Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi. "Pakistan is coming under accusations from every direction; it was India and Afghanistan, and now the CIA is directly saying that the ISI is involved." He said Pakistan had little evidence to show for Indian activity while India could point to "literally thousands of arrests, tonnes and tonnes of explosives and arms". His comments were echoed by people involved with security agencies who claim that a "cornered" Pakistan was merely indulging in a blame game by claiming India is fuelling the Baloch insurgency. "India's involvement in either financing or arming the Baloch insurgents is imaginary," said Arun Sahgal, a former brigadier who studies Pakistan for the United Service Institute in New Delhi. "It's merely a retaliatory tactic by the Pakistanis now that credible evidence has emerged via Washington of their involvement in the bombing of the Indian Embassy at Kabul." But Tanveer Ahmad, a Pakistani defence analyst, said Islamabad's new allegations were not necessarily tit-for-tat and were consistent with earlier claims of Indian involvement in the south-western Pakistani province of Balochistan. "These complaints have never completely gone away on both sides and now they are getting more and more vehement," said Mr Ahmad, the director general of Pakistan's Institute of Strategic Studies. Still, Mr Ahmad, a former foreign secretary, said he expected the peace process to overcome the latest hurdles. "The people on both sides of the border want peace and the governments know it is in their ultimate interest," Mr Ahmad said. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, said yesterday that Islamabad did not want to trade blame rather than normalise ties. India's influence in Afghanistan dates to at least the 1980s, when it backed the pro-Soviet regime of Mohammad Najibullahn and Pakistan, with the United States, supported the mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets. * The National With additional reporting by Foreign Correspondent Rahul Bedi in New Delhi and Reuters

Updated: August 2, 2008 04:00 AM

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