KATHMANDU, Jan 2: An India-Pakistan chill settled over a regional South Asian summit in Nepal on Wednesday as the two sides traded charges over terrorist groups who India accuses of getting support from Islamabad but many countries including the United States believe could be precisely those who are keen to trigger a major armed conflict between the two uneasy neighbours, reports and diplomats said.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee led the campaign against any thaw with Pakistan during a public rally in his home constituency of Lucknow, where he accused Islamabad of deliberately obfuscating evidence against terrorists who attacked the Indian parliament on December 13.
“They ask us to give them proof. What proof are they talking about? The bodies of the five terrorists are there, if they really want any further convincing,” Vajpayee said. He was referring to Pakistan’s offer to extradite some 20 alleged terrorists that India says live there if New Delhi could give them proof.
Pakistan said on Tuesday that it was prepared to extradite the people India wants on charges of terrorism if New Delhi would give it proof.
Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh where Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is locked in a grim electoral battle.
If there was anything left unsaid, Indian foreign ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao told reporters in Kathmandu that a conducive climate for talks was not possible between the two countries unless Pakistan acted against anti-India terrorists.
“It does not lead to conducive climate leading to a reduction of tensions,” Ms Rao said, referring to a Pakistan spokesman’s remarks of Tuesday.
Vajpayee unleashed his barbs at the United States which has been advocating a soft line towards President Pervez Musharraf. “When we tested the nuclear bombs, they virtually declared us outcastes,” he said without naming the United States.
Shortly before Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh arrived in Kathmandu to finalize preparations for the delayed Saarc summit, suspected Muslim militants hurled grenades at a police picket near the assembly in Srinagar, killing one and injuring a dozen, officials said.
“This is evidently not serious as many other attacks have been in India, but in the present situation it could be used to project a case against easing of India-Pakistan tensions,” a Saarc diplomat based in Kathmandu told Dawn.
The war rhetoric back, it was left to India’s two closest allies to keep a watch on the mood. At a meeting of the media personnel from the seven Saarc states in Kathmandu, the Israeli and American ambassadors were the main diplomats present, searching for answers about what could be unfolding for the ill-fated Saarc summit.
The ambassadors may have been moved by what they saw or read of the summit in Kathmandu on Wednesday.
For initially, Singh was said to have held informal talks with Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar at the start of the Saarc ministers’ conference.
An Indian online news agency that filed a flash on the alleged talks failed to flesh out the story, effectively killing it within seconds. And Indian and Pakistani sources that witnessed the meeting between Sattar and Singh together with other Saarc colleagues, said there was a handshake and “an exchange of civilities” between the two but no more.
If indeed that is all that happened between the two on Wednesday, the Sattar-Jaswant meeting was not dissimilar to the virtually unreported one they had when they both attended the inauguration of Afghanistan’s interim government in Kabul last month. On the that occasion too the media was not present.
Significantly most private TV channels appeared to have missed even the large contingent of international media keeping a vigil on the summit.
If Singh was only initially involved in a perceptible moderation towards Pakistan, he was quickly checked by India’s junior Home Minister I.D. Swami on Wednesday.
Speaking to Star TV after the Srinagar attack, Swami said he did not agree with his foreign minister, when he was quoted as praising Pakistan’s recent measures against alleged terrorist groups as a step forward.
“It may be Mr Jaswant Singh’s opinion, but I do not believe that it is a step forward when terrorists are not arrested or punished, and they are allowed to continue with impunity,” Swami said.
Ever since India took strong diplomatic measures against Pakistan, there has been pressure from the US and other nations that the two neighbours meet and resolve their differences.
Though Pakistan says it is willing to meet India, saying even civil greetings would ease tension; India believes that unless Pakistan takes action against terrorist groups like Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammed, talks cannot be held.
India has submitted a list of 20 terrorists to Pakistan against whom it wants action.
Gen Musharraf will be attending the Saarc summit along with Vajpayee and other leaders from January 4 in Kathmandu. Both have been in constant touch with various heads of state and government including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sri Lankan President and Saarc chairperson Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Meanwhile, Saarc nations have finalized a four-point charter under which member-countries will work unitedly to eradicate terrorism from the region. At a pre-summit meeting between Saarc foreign secretaries, it was felt that terrorism had been primarily responsible not only for causing tension between the member-states but also for the region not achieving its desired economic goals.
The summit will also discuss the possibility of making South Asia a free-trade zone by 2005.
India will push for the effective implementation of the UN Security Council resolution on tackling terrorism at the two-day meeting.
New Delhi is expected to emphasize the need to comprehensively address the issue of terrorism, which has threatened peace and security in the region.
The Saarc foreign secretaries have also recommended some changes in the Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism signed by the member states in 1987.
Pakistan and Bangladesh have yet to enact national legislations as mandated by the convention. The foreign secretaries have suggested that legal experts from the seven-member grouping meet in Colombo soon to discuss steps to update the convention.