Will India, Pakistan ties again cast shadow over SAARC?

By Sarwar Kashani, IANS,

Thimphu: As Bhutan gets ready to host for the first time the 16th SAARC summit Wednesday, all eyes are on India and Pakistan and whether their dispute will overshadow the eight-nation association in its silver jubilee year.

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Ties between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan had hit a low following the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that left 166 people dead.

Manmohan Singh’s Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani is already in Thimphu and there are speculations that the two leaders will hold bilateral talks.

The talks will be held for the first time after the Sharm-el-Sheikh dialogue in 2009 that delinked Pakistan action against anti-India terror groups from the composite dialogue and included the first-ever reference to Balochistan in any joint statement of the two countries.

New Delhi broke off composite peace talks with Islamabad after the Mumbai attack that India blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group.

Foreign secretaries of the two countries – Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir – met in the Indian capital in February but talks ended in a stalemate again after India insisted that the composite dialogue would resume only after Pakistan prosecutes terrorist leaders responsible for the Mumbai carnage.

Officially both countries have fallen short of categorically denying or confirming the possible talks between Manmohan Singh and Geelani on the sidelines of the summit. Senior officials from the two countries here are also not ruling out anything.

Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna Tuesday met his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the SAARC climate exhibition here.

The two leaders shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, which Indian officials said “was a basic courtesy”.

Qureshi said he was hopeful that the relations between the two countries will improve. “The weather over here is beautiful and don’t you want the relations to be beautiful as well? So do I. We can talk about talks. Can’t we? Why not?

“We all live in hope. I think talks and engagement are a sensible way to move forward.”

Krishna while not ruling out a bilateral meeting between the prime ministers told reporters: “Let the PM come here tomorrow. We will see how the scheduling and bilateral (meetings) are there. But we have to await the arrival of the prime minister.”

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to join other South Asian leaders in Wednesday.

The two prime ministers last came face-to-face at a 47-nation summit on nuclear security in Washington, where they shook hands at a dinner reception.

In its silver jubilee year, the eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) will focus on climate change and sign three agreements at the end of the two-day summit in Thimpu, the capital city of the landlocked kingdom.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are members of SAARC.