BRUSSELS, Nov 21: Senior European Union officials will head for India and Pakistan on Thursday to boost political and economic ties with Indian and Pakistani leaders on regional issues and a new round of world trade liberalization talks.

After Friday’s talks in New Delhi, the EU mission, led by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose country now holds the EU’s rotating presidency, will go to Islamabad for talks on the future of Afghanistan with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Officials said the talks with Vajpayee and his cabinet will also touch regional issues, notably India’s relations with Pakistan and nuclear issue.

Accompanying Verhofstadt will be Romano Prodi, head of the European Commission which runs the EU’s day-to-day business and Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner.

Verhofstadt and Prodi will go to Islamabad on Saturday to discuss with Gen Pervez Musharraf the future plan for Afghanistan.

“Once the situation in Afghanistan has been stabilized the European Commission will be prepared to assist in the voluntary repatriation of refugees,” EU spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said.

There are three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The EU and its 15-member states have so far pledged US$ 272 million in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan and is keen to have a say in rebuilding the country.

“The main message will be that the EU is interested in a broad-based government in Kabul,” said Kemppinen. “We consider Pakistan as a very important partner and are very interested in their views of the current situation.”

The EU will likely end up paying the lion’s share of the cost of rebuilding Afghanistan, he added.

The Europeans acknowledge the United States took the lead in fighting the Taliban but, says EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten: “The European Commission has been energetically engaged,” in mapping out a post-Taliban Afghanistan.—AP

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