Nuclear-armed foes Pakistan, India talk peace over lunch

NEW DELHI Sun Apr 8, 2012 5:56pm IST

1 of 5. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) shakes hands with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari during a meeting in New Delhi April 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Prakash Singh/Pool

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stood together in New Delhi on Sunday, adding weight to peace efforts by the nuclear-armed foes with the first visit by a Pakistani head of state to India in seven years.

Relations have warmed since Pakistan promised its neighbour most favoured nation trade status last year, although a $10 million bounty offered by Washington for a Pakistani Islamist blamed for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai has stirred old grievances.

The leaders discussed Kashmir, theatre of two of three wars between India and Pakistan, as well as terrorism and trade during a 40-minute meeting on their own before sharing lunch, India's Foreign Secretary Rajan Mathai told reporters.

"We would like to have better relations with India. We have spoken on all topics that we could have spoken about and we are hoping to meet on Pakistani soil very soon," Zardari told a briefing as they emerged from Singh's residence.

Singh said he hoped to make his first visit to Pakistan at a convenient date.

"Relations between India and Pakistan should become normal. That's our common desire," he said. "We have a number of issues and we are willing to find tactical, pragmatic solutions to all those issues and that's the message that president Zardari and I would wish to convey."

Zardari then headed to the shrine of a revered Sufi Muslim saint, Ajmer Sharif in Ajmer, seen as a symbol of harmony between South Asia's often competing religions.

On his first visit to India as part of the 40-member delegation, Zardari's son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, stood behind the leaders, in a sign of his growing role in politics.

Mathai said Singh offered Zardari India's help in finding 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians engulfed by an avalanche on Saturday near the 6,000-metre-high (18,500-foot) Siachen glacier in Kashmir - known as the world's highest battlefield.

Zardari thanked Singh but did not immediately respond to the offer to help rescue teams, backed by helicopters and sniffer dogs combing an area one-km (half a mile) wide with snow up to 80 feet (25 metres) deep. Hundreds have died at Siachen over the years, mainly from the inhospitable conditions.

A foreign ministry source said the timing of any visit by Singh to Pakistan will depend on issues including a conflict over the oil-rich Sir Creek river estuary, one of their longest running disputes.

MUMBAI ATTACK

Singh told Zardari it was imperative to bring to justice the perpetrators of a 2008 attack on India's financial capital, Mumbai - a three-day gun and bomb rampage by 10 Pakistani militants that left 166 dead and derailed the peace process.

Talks only resumed last year.

Singh raised the continued freedom of Hafiz Saeed, the Islamist suspected of masterminding the attack. Saeed will be discussed again at a forthcoming meeting between home ministry officials, Mathai said.

India is furious Pakistan has not detained Saeed, despite handing over evidence against him. Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said on Friday that anyone with concrete proof to prosecute Saeed should present it to the courts.

Relaxed visa rules will be signed at the same meeting of officials. Pakistan is expected to formally designate India as a most-favoured-nation later this year.

With Zardari and Singh both suffering major domestic problems, prospects are low for fixing the Kashmir stand-off.

Lasting Pakistan-India peace would go a long way to smoothing a perilous transition in Afghanistan as most NATO combat forces prepare to leave by the end of 2014.

India and Pakistan fought their most recent war in 1999, shortly after both sides declared they possessed nuclear weapons. Hundreds died on the defacto border in Kashmir before Pakistani troops and militants were forced to withdraw.

Born in a village in what is now Pakistan, Singh has pushed for peace during his two terms in office, but his efforts were knocked off track by the 2008 ouster of former President Pervez Musharraf, with whom he had built trust, and the Mumbai raids.

Informal meetings, during international cricket matches, or in this case before Zardari's pilgrimage to the Sufi shrine, have become the hallmark of Singh's diplomacy.

In November, Singh met Gilani in the Maldives and promised to open a new chapter in their history. Hopes are focused on boosting trade and tourism, and resolving the conflict at the Siachen glacier and Sir Creek in the west.

Musharraf, the last Pakistani head of state to visit India in 2005, has said both issues were as good as fixed while he was in office.

(Additional reporting by Anurag Kotoky; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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