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Manmohan to meet Zardari in Russia

By Manish Chand, IANS,

New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is set to meet Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg next week. Their first meeting since the Mumbai terror attacks, however, will be more of an ice-breaker and is unlikely to lead to an immediate resumption of stalled dialogue between the two countries.

“They are sure to meet. But it has not been decided what form it will take, whether it will just be a handshake or a one-on-one with no structured agenda,” a highly-placed government source told IANS on the condition of anonymity.

“It will be primarily a courtesy call,” the sources said. “There is no change in India’s position about not resuming talks till Pakistan takes tangible action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage and dismantles the infrastructure of terrorism.”

Former foreign secretary Salman Haidar told IANS: “It would be normal for the two leaders to meet as they are going to be in the same city. I expect that the meeting would take place.

“The prime minister should meet and tell Zardari to convince India that something is being done on the ground to take action against terorrism and anti-India terror groups, specially those involved in the Mumbai attack.”

Manmohan Singh and Zardari will be in Yekaterinburg, an industrial city located midway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, June 15-16 for the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) summit as well as the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet.

India, along with Pakistan and Iran, is an observer at SCO, a security grouping where Russia and China run the show with a supporting chorus of Central Asian republics including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyztan and Tajikistan.

This will be the first SCO summit in which an Indian prime minister will be participating.

In the past, India has been represented at the SCO summit at the level of foreign minister and petroleum minister. Manmohan Singh was reluctant to attend the SCO summit, but with host Russia keen on his presence, he could not say no, official sources said.

Despite the dual summit Russia will be hosting, all eyes in India and Pakistan, whose ties remain frosty, will be on the Manmohan Singh-Zardari meeting that looks almost certain barring a last-minute hitch.

But the expectations are minimal.

“It could be something like then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf walking up to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and shaking his hands on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in 2003. It took another year before the talks were restarted at another SAARC summit in 2004,” a seasoned diplomat suggested.

In the run-up to the upcoming meeting, there have been subtle conciliatory noises from the government and growing voices in India urging it to make a bid for peace despite disappointment over Islamabad’s perceived inaction against terrorism.

Despite India’s anger at the release of Hafiz Saeed, the suspected mastermind of the Mumbai attack, Manmohan Singh hinted at reconciliation in his first policy speech in parliament June 9

Manmohan Singh’s remarks that India was prepared to meet Pakistan “more than half-way” if it takes action against terrorism have been interpreted as a sign of India’s readiness to resume the composite dialogue that was stalled after the Mumbai attack last year. Pakistan was quick to welcome the remarks.

“Basically, he should give Pakistan some space to act and not lay down iron-clad conditions. The prime minister’s statement in parliament was a sign of flexibility,” said Haidar.

Ahead of the SCO summit, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, who is likely to accompany the prime minister to Russia, reiterated India’s considered post-Mumbai line.

“(All) instrumentalities of terrorism which are aimed at India, which is emanating from the Pakistani soil, will have to be dismantled and perhaps then a favourable climate, atmosphere would have been created for the dialogue to be resumed between Pakistan and India,” Krishna said.