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Afghanistan, Pakistan Declare New Trust In U.S. Talks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Wary neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan have achieved a "new environment" of trust that will help them fight cross-border Islamist militants, Pakistan's foreign minister said on February 24.

The minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta met in Washington before talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of a review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"There is a new environment between Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Qureshi. "The trust level, the confidence between the two countries, has increased manifold," he added.

Spanta said relations between the neighboring states, which in the past had deteriorated to mutual blame and public bickering over responsibility for border incursions by militants, had "remarkably improved." The two spoke to reporters after meeting at a hotel.

Ties have also been strained by widespread belief that some elements of Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency fuel conflict by backing Taliban militants waging an insurgency against Afghanistan's western-backed government. Islamabad denies this.

"The Afghanistan government has confidence in the leadership in Pakistan," Spanta said after receiving an explanation and assurances from Qureshi about a new Pakistani policy for countering an insurgency in the Swat region in northwest Pakistan.

Afghan and U.S. officials have expressed unease about Pakistan's strategy for Swat, a scenic valley near Islamabad where the Pakistani army announced onFebruary 23 it had ceased operations and where the Taliban is largely in control.

Critics say the government, which has offered to enforce Islamic Shari'a law in Swat and neighboring regions, risks encouraging militancy. Qureshi told reporters the Swat policy represented a "local solution to a local problem" and was "not any appeasement toward militants."

He said he told Spanta in their 40-minute meeting that "there's nothing to be apprehensive about [in] this arrangement."

Clinton emerged from talks with Qureshi at the State Department saying she expected an "open and full consultative process which we will be working on" with him and Spanta on February 25.

Qureshi also met Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kerry and Senator Chuck Hagel will release a report on February 26 calling for $4 billion to $5 billion of immediate financial aid to help Pakistan avert financial meltdown, said the Atlantic Council, which will publish the report.

The meetings in Washington follow President Barack Obama's decision last week to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan to battle Taliban insurgents, bringing U.S. forces there to 55,000 by this summer.