LAHORE, Jan 30: Indian Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Amrinder Singh said here on Friday that his visit to Lahore would help bring Pakistan and India come closer and resolve their differences.

"My welcome is overwhelming. This is just the beginning," he said while talking to reporters at the Wagah Border where he was received by Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, provincial ministers, Lahore Nazim Mian Amer Mehmood and senior officials during persistent rain.

Mr Elahi embraced Sardar Amrinder Singh, a former ruler of Patiala State, as he crossed the border to attend the World Punjabi Conference. He is scheduled to hold talks with his counterpart, Governor Khalid Maqbool and Punjab Assembly Speaker Afzal Sahi during his three-day stay in the city.

Mr Elahi said he would also visit the East Punjab. "Such visits will facilitate resolution of differences between the two countries." Folk dancers performed as Mr Elahi and his team welcomed Mr Amrinder and members of his delegation comprising three ministers, two MLAs, an equal number of businessmen and three officials.

Mr Elahi presented a sword and an officer of Pakistan Rangers a memento to Mr Amrinder. A smartly dressed boy also presented a bouquet to him. Mr Amrinder is visiting Lahore on Mr Elahi's invitation at a reception for Sikh leaders who were here to attend birthday celebrations of Guru Nanak some time ago.

He is the first East Punjab chief minister to head a delegation to Lahore since the division of the province at the time of Independence. Another East Punjab chief minister had accompanied Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during his historic visit to Lahore in 1999.

"Its a pilgrimage, a childhood dream come true. Lahore was the centre of the undivided Punjab where my parents studied. It's very nostalgic," Mr Amrinder said when asked how he felt on arrival here.

He said he had brought a lot of goodwill and affection of his people. "Everybody was very excited, he said, adding now things would move forward towards good bilateral ties."

Mr Amrinder said his visit would assist both the countries to move ahead on the road to peace. He was also hopeful of the beginning of trade and commercial relations between the two Punjabs.

"We can exchange a lot of things. You have cotton which we don't have. Similarly, you import wheat which we grow in abundance. We will move slowly as this is a beginning. We will certainly have cultural and trade exchanges," he said.

Mr Amrinder said both the Punjabs shared common culture, language and history. "We have come to another home. The division of the Punjab by the British rulers cannot divide people."

He said normalization of relations between Pakistan and India would allow them focus on their economic development and address issues like poverty and unemployment.

"I have three million unemployed people in my state. And we will be able to address such issues if both the Punjabs indulge in mutual trade and commerce, and are economically strengthened," he said.

When asked about the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, he said such matters would be settled at the federal level and he had come here on a provincial level.

"Naturally, the disputes should be resolved. We will have to look forward for closer relations and economic development leaving all disputes behind us," he said.

He said he would certainly invite Mr Elahi, the governor and the speaker to visit East Punjab. He also promised to take up the issue of visa restrictions with India's External Affairs Ministry.

"There should be no curb on cross-border visits by Punjabis. We are twin brothers who were unfortunately divided. Our centuries-old oneness cannot be eliminated," he said.

Mr Elahi said he would discuss various things with his counterpart that could include sharing of knowledge of agriculture products marketing and research.

He said the common language and culture of the two Punjabs would help remove differences between the two countries. "Arabs speak the same language and share common culture but live in separate countries. We will also have to look forward," he said.

Updated Jan 31, 2004 12:00am

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