LAHORE, March 4: Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on Friday said the petroleum ministers of India and Iran would be visiting Pakistan in the next few weeks to discuss the details of the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.

Speaking at a press conference at the Governor's House, he said the Indian cabinet's decision to become part of the proposed gas pipeline without attaching any conditions had "vindicated our principled stand". Also present at the press conference were PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Governor Khalid Maqbool.

"During my visit to India, I had offered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh an energy corridor. I told him that both India and Pakistan needed gas to meet their requirements. It (gas) could be imported from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan or directly from Iran. Another option of importing gas from Qatar was also discussed.

At that time, India had attached 4-5 conditions including grant of MFN status, transit rights through Pakistan, etc, to become a part of the project. However, I made it clear to them that no conditions would acceptable to us. If they want to become part of the project, they would have to do so without any conditions. Now they have agreed to join the project without any conditions," he said.

Mr Aziz said Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Ayar had already been invited to Pakistan to discuss the details of the proposed project. "The Iranian minister would also be coming here in a few weeks.

The Qatari minister was already here a few days back. We are also in contact with Turkmenistan (discussing the possibility of importing gas from there as well)," he said.

He said the gas pipeline diplomacy would help improve the situation in the region. "Inter-dependencies and linkages always help improve relationships (between nations)."

He said the ongoing composite dialogue between India and Pakistan was making rapid progress as talks were being held at different levels. In answer to a question, he said Kashmir was the core issue between the two neighbours and "we want it to be settled peacefully through dialogue in tandem with other issues".

On the issue of Baglihar Dam, he said the World Bank was processing Pakistan's request for the appointment of a neutral expert to settle the dispute. He said the World Bank had asked a few questions after receiving Pakistan's request. The answers would be sent back to the bank on Monday after which it would appoint the expert.

"We consider that the dam was being constructed in violation of the Indus Basin Treaty. We are prepared to again begin talks on the issue with India on the issue if it stops work on the dam," he said.

NFC: The prime minister avoided a direct answer to the question relating to the National Finance Commission (NFC). "We are trying to evolve a consensus among the provinces for the finalization of the award," he replied to a question from this reporter.

However, he added, the "delay in the finalization of the award was not caused by any sort of dispute over division of resources between the centre and the provinces". "It has been delayed due to lack of a consensus on horizontal distribution of resources among the provinces," he said, adding that he did not wish to make any other comment on the issue.

SINDH CRISIS: On a question regarding the political situation obtaining in Sindh after the dismissal of its revenue minister Imtiaz Sheikh by Chief Minister Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim, the prime minister said he himself and PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain had held meetings with both of them and told them not to take any action which would harm the interests of the party in Sindh.

He said the decision on the issue would be made once the Prime Minister's Inspection Team (CMIT) completed its inquiry. He said the decision would be made public. He said the government was in contact with other parties. He said there was no harm in talking to other parties and discussing different issues, adding that "political dialogue is an ongoing process".

The prime minister also spoke on the decision taken by the NEC on Thursday, saying the government had to take decisions to build large water storages in the country. He said the government was trying to evolve a consensus of provinces on the issue. However, he added, the details were being worked out and he could not say anything further on the matter right away.

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