India, Pakistan leaders may meet on sidelines of SAARC summit

Officials in India and Pakistan have indicated that their prime ministers will meet on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Bhutan this week, though it is unclear if the meeting will go beyond handshakes.

Manish Swarup/AP
Foreign ministers of the member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) from left to right, Zalmai Rassoul of Afghanistan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi of Pakistan, S.M.Krishna of India, G.L. Peiries of Sri Lanka, and Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk of Bhutan, stand together during a tea break at the 32nd session of the council of ministers, in Thimpu, Bhutan, Tuesday.

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan are set to meet on the sidelines of a regional summit this week, officials from both countries indicated.

A meeting would be another step toward better relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors, whose ties have deteriorated since the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai (Bombay) by Pakistani militants.

Foreign ministers of both countries hinted the meeting would take place when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in the mountain country of Bhutan on Wednesday and Thursday, according to Reuters. The SAARC comprises India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, the Maldives, and Bangladesh.

"A meeting between the leaders is seen as crucial because it would help keep engagement alive between two nuclear-armed neighbors who have a long tradition of hostility," Reuters reports.

"The two countries' battle for influence in Afghanistan also has a direct bearing on Western efforts to stabilize a region with 1.8 billion people."

The two shook hands when they met briefly in Washington, D.C., on April 13 for the Nuclear Security Summit, but have not engaged in substantial dialogue since July, when they met in Egypt and agreed to separate the issue of terrorism from peace talks. India stopped the peace process after the attacks in Mumbai.

While the two nations' foreign ministers met in February in the first formal bilateral talks since the Mumbai terror attacks, The Christian Science Monitor reported that the meeting was less about substance and more about rebuilding trust to pave the road for resuming real talks.

Though Reuters painted this week's meeting as likely, some state news agencies focused on the ambiguity.

The Indian newspaper The Hindu reports that remarks by both foreign ministers are being interpreted as suggesting a meeting may take place, but points out that there is no indication whether the possible talks would be substantial or a simple exchange of pleasantries, as took place in Washington. Asian News International reports that Pakistani premier Gilani said he had planned no meetings with other heads of state, though he might meet other leaders.

The Indian news agency NDTV did strike a more optimistic tone, saying there is "hope" this meeting will be more substantial.

Many see the handing over of three dossiers by Pakistan to India over the weekend, and Pakistan's request for access to interrogate [sole Mumbai terror suspect] Ajmal Kasab, officers investigating the Mumbai terror attacks, and the magistrate hearing the terror trials in Mumbai as having set the stage for some kind of talks here in Thimpu.

The Pakistani newspaper Dawn, meanwhile, criticized both India and Pakistan for repeatedly overshadowing SAARC’s purpose with their bilateral concerns.

It is unfortunate that the 16th Saarc summit that opens tomorrow in Thimphu has drawn public attention less for its role as a forum for regional cooperation, and more as a barometer of India-Pakistan ties. […]It is time Islamabad and New Delhi kept their bilateral dealings out of Saarc’s way so that cooperation on trade and socio-cultural issues is allowed to grow. In fact, this could pave the way for better bilateral ties.

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