ISLAMABAD, Nov 24: In a signal to the Indian leadership Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Mian Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, said on Sunday that the new government’s first priority is to normalize relations with India.

“My top priority would be to improve and normalize ties with India and other neighbouring countries,” Kasuri said in an interview with Dawn, his first after assuming office as Pakistan’s 19th foreign minister. He hoped that the Indian leadership would respond positively to these sentiments, saying: “India has also to play a role.”

When asked to identify the message he would be sending out to India, the minister said: “We want to improve relations with India and wish peace and prosperity for the people of India.”

Maintaining that Pakistan was sincere in its desire for peace with India, Kasuri hoped that the Indian leadership would reciprocate in the same spirit.

On a more specific note he said: “We are prepared to go half way or may be even a step further in improving relations with India.” But these relations have to be based on rule of law and mutual respect, he added.

“We want principled peace with honour and justice,” said Kasuri emphatically, pointing to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. He asserted that any solution to the Kashmir issue would have to take into account the aspirations of the Kashmiri people. “The desired objective of solution to the Kashmir dispute can only be achieved through what is acceptable to the Kashmiri people,” he emphasized.

The continuing tension between the two countries, the foreign minister said, had cost both Pakistan and India dearly. It had put negative impact on the social and economic development of the two South Asian neighbours. The unfortunate situation, he said, required sincere efforts by the leadership of the two countries to amicably resolve all outstanding issues.

Making a special reference to China, Kasuri stated: “Protecting, promoting and preserving the ideal strategic relationship Pakistan has with China is of utmost importance.” Further improving the already strong ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE and other Gulf states with large Pakistani expatriates, will also be a priority for the new government, he added.

Stressing the need to help Afghanistan in its phase of political and economic reconstruction, Kasuri said continuing its policy of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, Pakistan would continue to provide all possible assistance in its reconstruction and in rehabilitating Afghanistan.

Enhancing ties with the Islamic countries, cementing relations with the United States and the European Union, would be among the key foreign policy priorities, the minister added.

Acknowledging the enormous and generous contribution made by Japan in Pakistan’s development for almost five decades, the minister said: “We would also like to expand ties with Japan building on the goodwill that exists between the two countries.”

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