WASHINGTON, Sept 22: After a 90-minute meeting at the White House on Friday, President Gen Pervez Musharraf and US President George W. Bush indicated that they had an understanding on the issue of ‘hot pursuits’ but did not want an open debate on its ‘semantics’.

Both leaders, however, played down the controversy generated by President Musharraf’s interview to a US television channel in which he claimed that former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage had threatened to bomb Pakistan back to ‘the stone age’. The threat was apparently aimed at forcing Pakistan to cooperate with Washington after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The first I heard of this is when I read it in the newspaper today … I guess I was taken aback by the harshness of the words,” said Mr Bush.

Gen Musharraf said he would have liked to elaborate the statement attributed to him but “I am launching my book on the 25th, and I am honour-bound to Simon & Schuster not to comment on the book before that day”.

“In other words, buy the book is what he’s saying,” Mr Bush quipped.

Mr Bush recalled that after 9/11, the then secretary of state Colin Powell had told him: “President Musharraf understands the stakes, and he wants to join and help rout an enemy that has come and killed 3,000 of our citizens.

“Matter of fact, my recollection was that one of the first leaders to step up and say that the stakes have changed, that attack on America … needs to be dealt with firmly, was the president.”

On another contentious issue, that of allowing US troops to target Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects found inside Pakistan, both President Musharraf and President Bush indicated that they had no differences on the strategy to deal with the situation.

“When the president looks me in the eye and says … that there won’t be a Taliban and there won’t be Al Qaeda, I believe him,” said Mr Bush. “This is a person with whom I’ve now had close working relationships for five and a half years.

“And when he says, if we find — or when we find Osama bin Laden, he will be brought to justice, I believe him. And we’ll let the tactics speak for themselves after it happens. We’re on the hunt together.”

When asked if he had Pakistan’s permission to pursue insurgents inside its borders, Mr Bush said: “All I can tell you is that when Osama bin Laden is found, he will be brought to justice. And that’s what we’ve continually discussed.”

Responding to the same question, President Musharraf said: “Why are we bothering (about) the semantics? … You want the person. If at all we confront him, if at all we find out his location, we are quite clear what to do.

“There is total coordination at the intelligence level between the two forces; there is coordination at the operational level, at the strategic level, even at the tactical level. We are working together, and when the situation arises, we need to take the right decision to strike.”

“We probably don’t want to let him know what we’re thinking about anyway, do we,” said Mr Bush, winking at President Musharraf who smiled and said: “We have — the basis of a relationship (which) is trust and confidence. And if we don’t have that trust and confidence in each other, and we think that we are bluffing each other, I don’t think that’s a good way of moving forward.”

The talks ended on an upbeat note with both the leaders expressing full confidence in each other on all counts and pledging to intensify cooperation in the war against terror.

This was their second meeting in six months and fifth since 2002 when they first met.

Addressing the news conference, Mr Bush emphatically declared: “This president (Musharraf) is a strong defender of freedom and the people of Pakistan.”

President Musharraf, in turn, expressed similar sentiments saying: “We, first of all, reinforced our trust and confidence in each other. I trust President Bush, and I have total confidence in him, that he desires well for Pakistan and for our region.”

Mr Bush said his meeting with the president was “yet another good meeting between people who are able to speak frankly with each other, and people who share the common desire for people to live in security and peace”.

He said that the US was prepared to play any role in efforts by India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute if invited by the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

President Bush said he noticed that leaders of the two countries were determined to end their row over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir.

“I asked the president, just like I would ask the prime minister of India: What can we do to help? What would you like the United States to do to facilitate an agreement?”

“Would you like us to get out of the way? Would you like us not to show up? Would you like us to be actively involved? How can we help you, if you so desire, to achieve peace?

“And that’s the role of the United States, as far as I’m concerned.”

President Bush said: “It’s very important that the issue of Kashmir move forward and be resolved peacefully.” But he added that the United States could not force nations to reach an agreement for the sake of getting an accord.

“Lasting agreements occur when leaders of nations say: “Let’s get the past behind us and let’s move forward,” he said and added: “But ultimately peace, longstanding peace, depends upon the will of leaders.”

The US leader said he was ‘encouraged’ by the agreement between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reached on the sidelines of Non-Aligned Movement summit in Cuba this month to move the peace talks forward.

“It is an indication that there is desire at the leadership level to solve this longstanding problem,” he said.

The US president said he was looking forward to his trilateral discussion with Gen Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sept 29, which is “going to be a good one and it’s going to be an interesting one. And it’s an important discussion”. Both the presidents said they had ‘an in-depth’ discussion on the situation in Afghanistan. These discussion were important because “one of the most important avenues for peace is for Afghanistan to succeed” and the US and Pakistan should work together to make it happen, said Mr Bush.

President Musharraf said he had explained to the US president that the peace deal signed in the tribal areas was with a grand jirga of tribal elders and not with the Taliban.

The deal, he said, ensured that there would be no Al Qaeda activity in the tribal agencies or across the border in Afghanistan. “There will be no Taliban activity in our tribal agencies or across in Afghanistan. There will be no Talibanisation, which is a — obscurantist thoughts or way of life, no Talibanisation.”

Describing the deal as a political arrangement with tribal elders, Gen Musharraf said the tribes were now honour-bound to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda activists in their areas.

Mr Bush said the NWFP governor, who also attended the meeting, had briefed him and members of his national security team on the strategy to strengthen governance and to promote economic development in the tribal belt.

“Our relationship is more than just helping to secure our respective homelands. Ours is a relationship that recognises that through economic prosperity, people can better themselves,” he said.

Mr Bush praised Gen Musharraf as a ‘strong and forceful leader’ who was being targeted by extremists because of his courage, putting at rest media speculations that Washington wanted a democratic change in Pakistan.

“I admire your leadership. I admire your courage. And I thank you very much for working on common strategies to protect our respective peoples,” he said.

The US president, however, assured the people of Pakistan that he also raised the issue of democracy in the meeting and President Musharraf told him that the 2007 elections would be free and fair.

“He understands that the best way to defeat radicalism and extremism is to give people a chance to participate in the political process of a nation.”

President Musharraf said that although the Afghan issue was discussed in ‘depth’, they also talked about other issues. “We discussed the entire gambit of relations bilaterally between the United States and Pakistan and also in our region and on international issues,” he said.

“On a broad-based level, assistance in the education and health sector, on the defence side, the F-16 deal, all this was discussed.”

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