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Zardari Visits EU, NATO Headquarters

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (second from left) with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (far left), Klaus, and Barroso at EU headquarters in Brussels on June 17.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has visited both European Union and NATO headquarters in Brussels to urge greater economic openness and more support to combat a fierce insurgency.

At the first-ever EU-Pakistan summit, Zardari pleaded for more free trade with the world's largest single market.

In a speech across town to NATO ambassadors, the Pakistani president asked allies for more support in the struggle against insurgents, but warned that Pakistan itself must conduct the struggle and that the country's sovereignty must be respected by the international troops stationed in neighboring Afghanistan.

At a meeting that EU leaders described as historic, Zardari was promised extensive EU assistance, as well as immediate humanitarian aid for people displaced by the fighting in the Swat Valley.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso both described as "impressive" the Pakistani president's democratic record and his commitment to the fight against extremism.

Klaus told journalists after the meeting with EU leaders focused mostly on economic and trade issues that the EU pledged immediate humanitarian assistance, as well as longer-term steps toward free trade.

"The EU is ready to help. The EU is ready to help in many fields, and we discussed ways how to do it," Klaus said. "On the one hand, it's the issue of humanitarian aid; on the other, [it's the] much more important form of aid, which is the opening of markets for Pakistan [by] European Union countries."

The European Union is Pakistan's largest trading partner, with turnover in 2008 worth more than 7 billion euros.

Barroso noted 80 percent of Pakistan's exports to the EU already benefit from the EU's generalized system of preferences, the bloc's equivalent of most favored nation status, in which one nation grants another all trade advantages that any other country receives.

A free trade area remains a long-term prospect, Barroso said, which must approved by all member states -- a number of whom are liable to be vulnerable to Pakistani competition in the agriculture and textile sectors, among others.

Barroso announced moves to release 72 million euros in humanitarian aid to assist the people who were displaced during the recent fighting between Pakistani troops and Taliban insurgents in the Swat Valley.

"We are aware of the enormous suffering of the civilian population, of a large number of people who fled the area in and around the Swat Valley," Barroso said. "This is why today we have decided to boost our emergency humanitarian funding to Pakistan from the current seven million euros to 72 million euros to help the most vulnerable civilians displaced."

Twenty million euros of that money will be released immediately. The EU will make available the additional 52 million euros in nonhumanitarian aid and has earmarked a further 485 million euros over the next five years to support education and rural development in the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan.

Both EU leaders stressed the importance of democracy in Pakistan. Klaus said democracy is a "necessary precondition" for stability in the country.

Zardari, who came to power following election last year, replaced General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 2001. After the summit with EU representatives today, Zardari said he believes the EU will never again receive "dictators" representing his country.

"The engagement of the democratic countries of the world with Pakistan and with democratic Pakistan is a relief, a positive step, and an assurance that no dictator will ever be welcome in the halls of the EU, no matter what happens," Zardari said.

Musharraf visited the EU seat of power twice, in 2006 and 2008, on both occasions addressing the European Parliament.

At NATO headquarters, alliance diplomats said, Zardari delivered an "emotional" speech to the North Atlantic Council, which comprises the ambassadors of the alliance's 28 member states.

He asked for greater allied support in the struggle against Taliban insurgents, but made no specific requests. Concrete assistance is understood to be a matter of bilateral collaboration between Pakistan and the United States, as well as some of the other more active allies in Afghanistan.

The remit of the NATO operation in Afghanistan does not extend to Pakistan. Occasionally, however, U.S. and other coalition forces have been known to conduct operations on the Pakistani side of the border, causing consternation in Islamabad.

In Brussels, Zardari insisted that Pakistan's sovereignty must be respected.

He said Pakistan's own forces are far better placed than NATO forces to carry out operations on its territory, as they know the geography and local culture better and. Also, he said, the number of civilian casualties would be lower and the Pakistani public would find it easier to acquiesce to the operations.