ISLAMABAD, June 16: The visiting US Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said on Saturday Washington was interested in the advancement of democracy and fair and free elections in Pakistan, adding it was for President Gen Pervez Musharraf to decide the uniform issue.

“It is up to him (Gen Musharraf) to decide when to take off his uniform but we do want free, fair and transparent elections scheduled for this fall or early next year,” he said at a news conference here. He said he had not discussed the uniform issue with the president.

Political speculation has been rife in Islamabad as three senior US officials — Mr Negroponte, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and US Central Command chief Admiral William J. Fallon — are in Pakistan.

When questioned about the significance of the visits by the US officials, Mr Negroponte said there was “no hidden or special agenda”.

He said he was here to further strengthen strategic relations between the two countries.

When asked whether his country was facilitating political understanding between President Gen Musharraf and PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto, Mr Negroponte said he had not discussed the issue specifically. “Only in general was this issue discussed during my meetings with various people here,” he said.

He said during his two-day stay in Islamabad, he had held meetings with President Gen Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, National Security Council secretary Tariq Aziz, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Ihsanul Haq, Vice-Chief of Army

Staff Gen Ahsan Salim Hayat and ISI chief Lt Gen Ashfaq Kiani. He said he also planned to meet opposition leaders to hear their viewpoints on various issues.

He said the issues he discussed with the senior Pakistani officials included the war on terrorism, extremism, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and Pakistan-India relations. “Both Pakistan and the United States are confronted with various challenges and I’m here to discuss them in details.”

He did not comment when asked whether his visit had anything to do with the ongoing judicial crisis and the highly volatile political situation in the country.

Mr Negroponte said he had not brought any “hard or soft message” for President Gen Musharraf about the war on terror. “Ever since I took over as the deputy secretary of state, I was encouraged by Ambassador Durrani in Washington and Gen Ihsan to visit Pakistan, and since Pakistan is a very important strategic partner, I decided to come here,” he said, adding that he would soon be returning to Islamabad to ensure early convening of the second round of strategic dialogue between the two countries.

The US official said his country hoped that the important political process outlined by President Gen Musharraf would meet with success, specially the holding of fair and free elections.

Asked how he saw the role of the ISI in the war on terror as being a former US intelligence director, he said the Pakistani agency had been very cooperative and was extending necessary support to chase terrorists and other hardened criminals in the region.

Answering a question, he said he had raised with the Pakistani officials the issue of human rights violations and said the US embassy in Pakistan was thoroughly monitoring the issue. “We extensively report on this subject,” he said, adding that he had also discussed the growth of free media in Pakistan.

Mr Negroponte said his country would offer $750 million to Pakistan over the next five years – about $150 million every year – for development in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. “We want to help the government to undertake some real development in Fata which had been neglected in the past.” He said the area needed modern facilities, which would help to fight against terrorism and extremism. He defended his testimony recorded earlier in the US Senate where he had said Pakistan was an excellent partner in the war on terror and had made a lot of sacrifices and that “we value that friendship with Pakistan”.

“But in the same context I had also said that Pakistan could do more with regard to cross-border movement in Afghanistan. In fact, we all can do more to bring this war to a successful conclusion.”

Mr Negroponte hinted at the possibility of providing more support to the Frontier Corps to make it a dynamic organisation so that it could effectively fight terrorism.

He told a reporter that it needed a holistic approach to deal with the increasing incidents of suicide bombings in Pakistan. It required a whole range of means like social development, legal and political and if necessary military, to deal with this issue, he added.

In reply to a question, he said the second round of strategic dialogue between the two countries would be undertaken with mutually accepted dates. However, he added, the talks would be held very soon.

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