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Accord on SAFTA draft, protocol against terrorism

By Amit Baruah and
B. Muralidhar Reddy

ISLAMABAD JAN.1. The stage seems set for a possible bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan here as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations today approved the draft South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) framework treaty as well as an additional protocol to the existing regional convention on the suppression of terrorism.

Describing the breakthrough on SAFTA as "historic" for the region as a whole, the Foreign Secretary, Shashank, told presspersons tonight that the accord was reached at the informal discussions among the Foreign Ministers in the evening. India and Pakistan have agreed to tariff-free imports from the least-developed countries (LDCs) in the SAARC within a stipulated timeframe.

India always said that to make the SAARC meaningful, an accord on the SAFTA should be clinched. Now that this has happened, India could be more amenable to a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC summit.

Mr. Shashank said the SAFTA accord would boost development and economic cooperation in the region. Official sources said they saw the SAFTA as the Most-Favoured Nation "plus" in the India-Pakistan bilateral context.

Referring to the accord on the additional protocol, Mr. Shashank said the regional convention on terrorism had been finalised in the light of the developments of September 11, 2001 as well as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 on counter-terrorism measures.

Expressing happiness over the agreements, the Pakistan Foreign Secretary, Riaz Khokhar, told presspersons separately that there had been no request from India for a bilateral meeting with the Pakistan leadership.

Asked why Pakistan was "forthcoming" on the issue while no request had come from India, Mr. Khokhar said: "The SAARC summit is about the seven countries of the region and whatever discussions take place bilaterally are on the sidelines. ... "

Referring to the calls that had been sought by other visiting Heads of State Government, Mr. Khokhar said: "We are not begging or soliciting [for a meeting]. None of those things. We are the host country and the ground rules of regional and multilateral diplomacy are always very clear."

Mr. Khokhar said: "When, for instance, the Pakistan President [Pervez Musharraf] went to Kuala Lumpur... the President requested a call on the Prime Minister of Malaysia. So, there is what you call a culture of diplomacy. We certainly respect that."

Responding to a reported statement of Mr. Shashank, Mr. Khokhar suggested that if the Indians had said something on a bilateral meeting not being fixed so far, they should stick to it. He, however, said that the SAARC leaders would meet in "retreat" on January 5 at the Pakistan Prime Minister's residence and the leaders could "step aside" and talk about other things. There was no agenda for the retreat.

Asked about the differences that had marked the discussions on the additional protocol, Mr. Khokhar said Pakistan was mindful of its vital interests and of its obligation as far as combating terrorism was concerned.

The SAARC countries, he said, did not get into the contentious business of defining terrorism. There was, he claimed, no difference of opinion insofar as an agreement on the text of the additional protocol was concerned. The draft did not contain any reference to "cross-border infiltration" from Pakistan to India.

In response to a question from a Bangladeshi reporter that India and Pakistan were together when it came to the SAFTA, Mr. Khokhar said it was not as if Islamabad and New Delhi were ganging up against Dhaka. He declined to say whether Nepal and Bhutan also wanted the LDCs status. In response to a question on the SAARC Charter, he said: "We are very clear that it is important for the future of the SAARC that outstanding problems and disputes must be resolved. That will create an enormously good atmosphere for progress in the SAARC, for the stability of the region."

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