NATO chief seeks to widen ties with Pakistan


Islamabad : NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is due to arrive in Pakistan Monday on a two-day visit aimed at broadening relations with one of the military alliance's key allies in the war against terrorism.

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Accompanied by NATO's top military commander, General John Craddock, Scheffer will consult with President Pervez Musharraf and other officials as he seeks to establish a "mature political dialogue" and tighten cooperation between the partners fighting the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, he said ahead of the trip.

He will be the first head of the 26-country alliance to visit Pakistan, which plays a vital role in the Afghan campaign through its efforts to prevent insurgents crossing into the conflict zone from tribal areas on the Pakistani side.

Asked whether NATO members were still as critical of Islamabad's chequered record in curbing the cross-border movement, Scheffer told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn in Brussels that all players in Afghanistan had to step up action against the "spoilers."

"There is always room to do more for all of us – but I say explicitly that this true for all of us, not only Pakistan," the official said.

"President Musharraf is fighting that fight as hard as we are," he added, noting that Pakistan should receive more help in monitoring its 2,500 km border with Afghanistan.

NATO has around 36,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, many of whom are engaged in daily battles with the resurgent Taliban movement, which was ousted from power in late 2001 by US-led coalition forces.

US officials in particular have criticized Pakistan for allowing the militants to establish "safe havens" in the mountainous border area from which to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

In turn, Musharraf's government reminds that it has 80,000 soldiers stationed on the frontier and lost more than 700 men in clashes with militants.

Bilateral relations will also be discussed. Scheffer said NATO had built up "confidence and trust" in Pakistan through its massive humanitarian aid operation following the October 2005 earthquake in Kashmir that killed more than 73,000 people.

The alliance airlifted some 3,500 tonnes of supplies to Pakistan in three months and deployed many specialists in the disaster zone.

Scheffer said it was time to "strengthen our political dialogue."

His visit comes a week after Musharraf met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Ankara to try to overcome the mutual hostility that grew in recent months over shortcomings in the fight against the Taliban.

The NATO secretary-general also stressed the need for good relations between Kabul and Islamabad.