India’s Singh Accepts Zardari’s Invitation to Visit Pakistan

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accepted Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s invitation to visit the neighboring country after a “constructive” meeting today.

“President Zardari and I have had a very constructive and friendly exchange of views on all bilateral issues,” Singh told reporters after a half-hour-long meeting. “I am very satisfied with the outcome of this visit.”

This is the first time Pakistan’s head of state has crossed the border since 2005, as the countries build on a peace process that resumed last year. Zardari held talks with Singh in New Delhi before the two leaders had lunch. Zardari left for the Rajasthan city of Ajmer for a personal trip to a Sufi religious shrine.

Zardari invited Singh to visit Pakistan by the end of this year. “I will be very happy to visit Pakistan on a mutually convenient date,” Singh said.

Singh’s visit to Pakistan would be the first by an Indian head of government since January 2004 when former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Islamabad for talks with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The nuclear-armed nations have in recent months agreed to boost trade, expand travel across their frontier in divided Kashmir and grant more business visas as they normalize economic ties. Peace talks, derailed by the November 2008 terrorist strike on Mumbai by Pakistani gunmen that killed 166 people, restarted in February 2011.

‘All Topics’

“We have a number of issues and we are willing to find practical, pragmatic solutions to all those issues,” Singh said. Zardari expressed his willingness to have better relations with India. “We had spoken on all topics that we could have spoken about,” the Pakistani president said.

A day before Zardari’s visit, an avalanche struck a military post in the Siachen region burying 135 people and underscoring the cost of the countries’ rivalry in what is called the world’s highest battlefield. Pakistan’s army said 124 soldiers were among those buried when the avalanche hit a military post. Singh offered his guest humanitarian help for the avalanche victims, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters after the leaders’ deliberations.

Pakistan’s Cabinet in March approved a proposal to remove restrictions on the import of most items from India by December.

While their focus has been on ways to promote bilateral trade, the nations have made less progress on addressing India’s demands that Pakistan crack down on militant groups that have targeted India from across the border.

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed

In particular, India may continue to press Pakistan to take action against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar- e-Taiba militant group that India and the U.S. have blamed for carrying out the Mumbai strike. The two leaders discussed the problem of terrorism and Saeed, Mathai said.

The U.S. has offered a $10 million reward for help in arresting Saeed, who continues to address public rallies, increasing its pressure on Pakistan to move against the prominent politician and Islamic militant leader.

The Mumbai attack shattered a dialogue that over five years had increased cross-border trade and strengthened transport and cultural links. Zardari became president in September 2008, replacing military leader Pervez Musharraf, who had visited India three years earlier for talks in New Delhi and a cricket match.

Alleged Corruption

While Singh and Zardari have battled to inject new energy to negotiations, both men have been damaged by controversies at home.

Singh’s administration has been assailed by opposition parties and allies over efforts to open the economy to more foreign investment. Alleged government corruption triggered street protests last year and contributed to defeats in recent regional elections.

Zardari, too, has been fighting on several fronts. His prime minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, is on trial for contempt in Pakistan’s high court for refusing to order the reopening of Swiss graft charges against the president.

In separate hearings, the country’s top judges are probing claims that Zardari sought U.S. assistance in May to ward off a feared military coup in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing in an army garrison town by American special forces.

Pakistan was carved out of India at independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Since then the countries have fought three wars, two of them over the divided territory of Kashmir, and several skirmishes.

To contact the reporters on this story: Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at bpradhan@bloomberg.net; Santanu Chakraborty in Mumbai at schakrabor11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hari Govind at hgovind@bloomberg.net

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