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ISLAMABAD, June 9: Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani told the National Assembly on Monday his government would freeze — and practially reduce — defence spendings in the next budget as a show of its desire for peace with neighbours, and voiced a belated hope of reciprocity from nuclear rival India, which hiked is defence budget three months ago.

And, in a move to let parliament know more about defence expenditures, he said estimates for the armed forces and other defence organisations would be presented in parliament under separate “major heads” rather than “one-line” allocation, in the budget for fiscal 2008-09 due to be unveiled on Wednesday.

The prime minister interrupted the scheduled proceedings of the lower house to make his first policy statement on defence matters, which was later greeted by several members from both sides of the political divide mainly for the slight opening of the defence budget for the first time in the country’s history.

The traditional secrecy of the defence budget has often been criticised by politicians and intelligentsia mainly for frequent military interventions in politics, including seizure of power in four coups that saw the country ruled by armed forces for more than half of nearly 61 years of its life.

Mr Gilani said Pakistan could not remain oblivious of its defence needs in a volatile environment due to its location in a “geo-strategically important but a turbulent region” but added that his government would continue to strive for “peace with honour” without compromising on national interests.

“As a matter of policy, I declare that our defence is based on the strategy of minimum essential (and) credible deterrence and that we shall not enter into any arms race,” he said in an obvious reference to the nuclear-weapon capability of Pakistan and India which two countries demonstrated in their May 1998 tit-for-tat nuclear tests.

“As a measure of our tangible display to seek peace with our neighbours, we have decided to freeze, actually reduce, the defence budget when seen in the context of inflation and the rupee-dollar parity,” the prime minister said without stating whether the freeze would be at the original 2007-08 budget allocation of Rs275 billion ($4.58 billion), 10 per cent more than the previous year’s Rs250.2 billion, or at a revised estimate to be known in new budget.

“We hope to see a reciprocal gesture from our neighbour for the sake of peace and prosperity of the region,” he said in an obvious reference to India, which raised its defence budget for 2008-09 by 10 per cent to $26.5 billion in March to fund a huge programme for the modernisation of the world’s fourth army.

NEW DEFENCE BUDGET FORMAT: Explaining the new format of the defence budget, the prime minister said it would change the present practice of presenting a “one-line allocation” and approving it in a consolidated form and then the defence ministry apportioning the allocation to the three services – army, navy, air force – and other defence organisations.

“My government has now decided to present the defence budget estimate in a format reflecting the estimated expenditure under major ‘heads’ in the parliament,” he said, adding that the defence ministry and the chief of the army staff “have fully endorsed the revised format”.

The move was welcomed by opposition’s Riaz Hussain Piraza of the formerly ruling Pakistan Muslim League and Abdul Kadir Khanzada of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and some from the treasury benches, including Khwaja Mohammad Khan of the Awami National Party.