Page last updated at 04:33 GMT, Tuesday, 22 April 2008 05:33 UK

Praise for Pakistan's 'fragile coalition'

By James Robbins
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

David Miliband speaks to the BBC about Pakistan

Foreign Secretary David Miliband has told the people of Pakistan that the country's new coalition government deserves credit for coming through the trauma of an assassination, and then being elected by genuine democracy.

It was very deliberate praise of the new and still fragile coalition.

That government is setting out on a long, hard road to demonstrate that democratic civilian rule can succeed and survive in Pakistan in the face of both extremism and major economic challenges.

Mr Miliband, completing a two-day visit to the country, had dinner with the rivals who have come together in coalition - Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari. They had been bitter enemies over many years.

Mr Miliband said he was humbled to sit with one on either side of him and hear them talk to each other about democracy.

Terrorist presence

But Britainís foreign secretary did not deny the immense challenges facing the new coalition.

He said there was clear evidence of a continuing al-Qaeda presence on both sides of Pakistanís border with Afghanistan.

Britain supports the country's commitment to dialogue leading to the possibility of reconciliation with those extremists who are prepared to play by the rules within Pakistan's constitution.

Pakistani Taliban militants gather during a public rally in Inayat Kili
Britain supports reconciliation with extremists who renounce violence

However, Mr Miliband gave a very clear warning to those in the country who argue that their army should not be used to fight against militants, including fellow Pakistanis in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

"Reconciliation," he said, "does not mean creating a safe space for terrorists to operate."

That reflects a fear that, to some, reconciliation could simply mean the government reaching an accommodation with extremists in return for some sort of undertaking that they will attack targets outside, not inside, the country.

The danger to Britain is something Mr Miliband has also stressed.

There is no question that Britain has a life and death interest in the long-term triumph of democracy over extremism in Pakistan.

Mr Miliband told me that 70% of the terrorist plots now being investigated in Britain could be traced back to Pakistan.

The country does have a historic opportunity to end the cycle of corrupt civilian rule punctuated by military take-overs, but the new coalition has to rise above a history of past corruption and abuses of power if it is to break that cycle.

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