Nirupama Subramanian

ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari’s remark that there would soon be “good news” on Kashmir has set off a cross-border guessing game but officials said it might have been a reference to efforts by India and Pakistan to launch cross-Line of Control trade as early as possible.

“Wait for a breakthrough on the cross-LoC trade,” a senior Pakistani official said.

Diplomatic sources guessed Mr. Zardari was referring to recent efforts by both sides to open the Line of Control in Kashmir to trade. But another Pakistani official said it could have been a reference to the government’s efforts to build a national consensus on the Kashmir issue.

At his first press conference after being sworn in, Mr. Zardari said there would be “good news” on Kashmir soon.

“I am aware of the back-channel dialogue and in the light of that we intend to take it to Parliament, to the parliamentary committee on Kashmir and to invite all the political forces which are outside Parliament and inshallah, before the month is over, before the coming of the Congress government’s going into election, we shall have some good news,” Mr. Zardari said.

He announced that Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Opposition Pakistan Muslim League (N), was on board, and that a “Kashmir caucus” would soon be set up in Parliament. The Pakistani parliament has always had a Kashmir committee. But it has yet to be set up in the present parliament, in which all committees have been delayed due to political uncertainties.

India and Pakistan have been of late working on an initiative to open up the Line of Control for trade between the two sides of Kashmir.

New Delhi has particularly been keen to fast-track the initiative after trouble erupted in the Valley, particularly after the violent “Muzaffarabad chalo” march that the Kashmiris took out to protest the blockade of the Valley by the people of Jammu, and during which separatist leader Sheikh Aziz was killed.

Pakistan is also thought to be keen on launching the cross-LoC trade as soon as possible as it wants to be seen as doing something to help the Kashmiris in the Valley.

India recently proposed to Pakistan that the trade could begin on October 1. Pakistan asked for a meeting “at the earliest” to iron out wrinkles, including a decision on the items that can be traded between the two sides.

Both Pakistan and India have concerns that the duty-free intra-Kashmir trade should not become a back-door channel for trade between the two countries.

New Delhi has not yet got back to the Pakistan foreign office on its proposal for a meeting in Islamabad to thrash this out.

Mr. Zardari, whose first trip abroad will be to China next week, visited the Pakistan Foreign Ministry on Wednesday for a detailed briefing on relations with India, China and the “war on terror.”

Media reports said there could be a meeting between Mr. Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month.

Pakistan’s new President announced at his press conference that he would be attending the session. The News, quoting diplomatic sources, said both sides were keen that the two leaders should take the opportunity to hold talks in order to address the new tensions in the peace process since the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

In a speech to officials at the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Zardari said the briefing was among his very first engagements after taking over as President. He said this showed the importance he attaches to Pakistan’s foreign policy and the role of the Foreign Office.

According to an official release, Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir made a detailed presentation on “key foreign policy issues.”

Foreign policy

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said at the briefing that Pakistan’s foreign policy was “shaped and underpinned by national security concerns and well being of the people” of Pakistan.

“Within these parameters, our primary objective is to safeguard the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; promote political, economic and trade relations with other countries; and project a positive image of the country in the international community” Mr. Qureshi said.

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