ISLAMABAD, April 7: In an unexpected move Wednesday the crucial technical level talks between Pakistan and India on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service were put off less than 24 hours before they were to begin in Islamabad.

The foreign ministry issued a brief statement late in the afternoon, saying that the talks had been postponed after mutual consultations. No reason was given in the three-liner official statement for the abrupt postponement of the much-awaited talks.

"After mutual consultations, technical level talks between the Governments of Pakistan and India on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service scheduled for 8-9 April, 2004, have been postponed. Fresh dates would be worked out through diplomatic channels," said the official announcement.

The announcement came a day after Pakistan offered to host expert level talks on nuclear confidence-building measures and proposed the dates of May 25-26. Apparently the decision to postpone the talks was taken some time in the afternoon.

Foreign ministry officials here insisted that the postponement came as a result of a mutual agreement. When Dawn asked for the reasons, the Acting Foreign Office Spokesman Mr Jalil Abbas Jilani simply said: "It is a diary issue and nothing more should be read into it."

Mr Jilani, who led the joint secretary level talks with India in February, made it clear that there was no change of hearts on establishing the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad bus link.

"Pakistan remains committed to Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali's word for the opening of the bus service," he said. This is the second time that Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus link talks have been postponed. Earlier, they were to be held on March 29 and 30 but were rescheduled on India's request. However, this time it is not clear who initiated the last-minute postponement.

Postponement of the talks for the second time would raise questions about what was the last-minute hitch that prompted it. The two-day technical level talks were to focus on modalities of the proposed bus link.

While names of the two communications ministries' officials who were to lead the talks from both sides had been announced, there was no official word till Tuesday night on members of the two delegations.

INDIA: In New Delhi, an Indian External Affairs Ministry statement issued on Wednesday said that technical level talks between India and Pakistan on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service have been postponed after mutual consultations, PPI adds.

"After mutual consultations, technical level talks on Srinagar- Muzaffarabad bus service scheduled for April 8-9, 2004, have been postponed," Indian External Affairs Ministry said in a statement without elaborating. Fresh dates would be worked out through diplomatic channels, it said.

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