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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 19:17 GMT
Pakistan invitation for Indian PM

By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC India correspondent

Pakistan's Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed is unsure how Delhi will react to the invitation
Pakistan has invited Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to a summit of South Asian countries due to take place in Islamabad in January.

The invitation was made on the sidelines of a South Asian (Saarc) meeting in the Indian capital, Delhi.

"We are ready to receive Mr Vajpayee in grand style," the Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, told the BBC.

He was unsure whether Delhi would accept the offer, which comes amid efforts to revive stalled peace talks.

"I told [Mr Vajpayee] that I am extending a cordial invitation to him on behalf of the Pakistani President, General Musharraf, and the Prime Minister, Mr Jamali," said Mr Ahmed.

All arrangements will be made keeping in mind his stature and image, he told me.

Delayed meetings

Mr Ahmed said the people of Pakistan had a high regard for Mr Vajpayee and see him as a visionary leader.

The Delhi-bound bus crosses the border
The Delhi-Lahore bus, restored this year to improve relations

He is the only leader capable of breaking the India-Pakistan impasse, he said.

But Delhi is still to commit itself on the invitation and is unlikely to do so in a hurry.

This is another indication of how difficult it is for the nuclear neighbors to find common ground in an effort to revive a stalled peace process.

In a symbolic gesture, Mr Vajpayee delayed his departure for Moscow by a couple of hours to formally open the Saarc ministerial conference.

But Delhi is still to take a decision on whether Mr Vajpayee will attend the Islamabad meeting, already delayed by a year because of continuing tension between India and Pakistan.

Mr Vajpayee's visit to Islamabad is seen as critical to advancing the peace process he initiated in April this year.

Though some progress has been made in terms of reducing tension and the two countries have restored bus links and re-appointed high commissioners in Delhi and Lahore, there is still no dialogue at a level senior enough to push forward the peace process.

India blames Pakistan for continuing violence in Indian Kashmir - a charge denied by Islamabad.

Partial agreement

The continuing differences between India and Pakistan also threaten to render Saarc quite irrelevant.

The point was re-emphasized by the Indian prime minister, who said that tension between member countries should not come in the way of increased economic cooperation in south Asia.

Indian soldiers on Kashmir border
Kashmir has been the source of two India-Pakistan wars

Mr Vajpayee did not directly mention Pakistan in his 10-minute speech to the Saarc meeting.

He said Saarc should learn from the example of the European Union, Asean, Latin America and the Caribbean region, where political differences have been set aside to form regional forums aimed at speeding up economic growth.

"If we won't learn from them, we will miss the boat," he said, while offering to enter into a preferential trade agreement with Pakistan.

Mr Ahmed agreed only partially with Mr Vajpayee's prescription.

He told the BBC that while it was fine to concentrate on economic, social and cultural ties, it was not practically possible to push ahead on these fronts alone, without making a sincere effort to resolve long-standing political disputes.

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