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Pakistan: Islamabad Takes Steps To Improve Ties With India Ahead of U.S. Envoy's Arrival

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is due to arrive in Islamabad today for a four-day diplomatic mission on the South Asian subcontinent aimed at capitalizing on a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan.

Prague, 7 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali said last night that Islamabad will match an offer by India to restore full diplomatic relations and transportation links between the two countries.

His remarks come ahead of the arrival in Islamabad today of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Armitage plans a four-day diplomatic mission on the South Asian subcontinent aimed at bringing Pakistan and India closer to peacefully resolving their decades-long dispute over Kashmir.

Jamali last night also announced steps aimed at increasing economic ties between India and Pakistan -- such as the reduction of customs duties and trade tariffs on 70 different items.

The Pakistani leader also proposed formal talks on eliminating the nuclear arsenals of both Pakistan and India. He said the interests of Kashmiris will be important in any future talks.

Jamali was responding to an initiative announced on 2 May by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that seeks a resolution to the Kashmir dispute. Jamali said last night that he hopes India will "seize the moment" to bring about "a good, solid solution on all issues."

"I have sent a formal invitation to the prime minister of India, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, to visit Pakistan. He is welcome to visit Pakistan whenever he wishes to do so. At the same time, I have also said that if there is any difficulty or any constraint for the peace in the region in South Asia, I would be also willing to travel to India, if it comes to that," Jamali said.

The Indian government today was studying Jamali's proposals. There was no immediate official response from New Delhi. But Vijay Kumar Malhotra, a spokesman for Vajpayee's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, called Jamali's remarks "completely inadequate."

He said Jamali had failed to address New Delhi's concerns about infiltrations into Indian-administered Kashmir by Islamic militants. Indian officials say Islamabad supports those Islamic militants with money and weapons, as well as intelligence reports. Islamabad denies those allegations.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Mahmud Kasuri today denied that the steps announced by Jamali are inadequate. He insisted that it is in the interest of both Pakistan and India to improve relations.

Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha described Jamali's latest offers as a "serious issue" that will be debated in the Indian Parliament tomorrow.

Indian officials also say the involvement of U.S. officials like Armitage in the diplomatic process is essential in order to bring pressure on Pakistan to put an end to its alleged support for cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. India alleges that Pakistan's powerful Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has been deeply involved.

The Islamabad-based English-language newspaper "Dawn" reported that Armitage met in Washington before his departure with the head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Ehsanul Haq, who has been in Washington for the past week.

But an analysis by Edward Luce in today's "Financial Times" of London concludes that the U.S. State Department is concerned about how far to push Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf on the issue of cross-border terrorism.

Stephen Cohen of the Washington-based Brookings Institute told the "Financial Times" that Pakistan has been keeping U.S. President George W. Bush's administration happy by handing over suspected senior Al-Qaeda terrorists.

But Cohen said Pakistan eventually will run out of Al-Qaeda leaders to hand over to the United States. And he concludes that there is little to suggest that Washington has a long-term policy toward Pakistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that Armitage will work on a series of steps in hopes of creating a more positive relationship between the two nations. Armitage told the BBC yesterday that his job is simply to help maintain a congenial atmosphere so that the thaw in relations between New Delhi and Islamabad can flourish.

Officials in New Delhi and Islamabad agree that the risk of war will rise sharply if the current rapprochement breaks down. And they say that rapprochement could come to a halt if either side is inflexible about its position on Kashmir.

But Jamali said a phone call he made early last week to Vajpayee had raised his hopes for a dramatic breakthrough. That phone call marked the first direct contact between high-level officials in the two countries since a military standoff last year along their common border brought both sides to the brink of war.

"During my phone call to Prime Minister Vajpayee on 28 April 2003, I sensed a positive desire on his part to break the impasse in our relationship and to take steps which would improve relations between Pakistan and India," Jamali said.

Formal talks between Armitage, Jamali and Musharraf are scheduled to start tomorrow in Islamabad. Armitage's entourage also will visit India before returning to Washington on 11 May.