Vajpayee set to meet Musharraf in Kathmandu

NEW DELHI, NOV. 1. The Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, may not want to see the Pakistan President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in New York later this month, but the two leaders are all set to meet at a forum of the South Asian leaders in Nepal in early January.

According to knowledgeable sources here, India has signalled through diplomatic channels its readiness to attend the long- delayed summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) now scheduled for January 4-6 next year at Kathmandu.

All the other leaders of the seven members of the regional grouping have apparently confirmed their participation in the Kathmandu summit. The assent of India, which has been hesitant until now to convene such a meeting, may help revive the moribund regional association as well as resume Indo-Pakistan dialogue at the highest level.

The certainty of a meeting within the SAARC framework in early January is likely to take some of the immediate political heat off Mr. Vajpayee not to avoid a meeting with Gen. Musharraf on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York later this month.

It should also give some time and space for India and Pakistan to cool the current bilateral tensions before the January engagement. The heightened rhetoric of the last few days in both the capitals has tended to deepen the political bitterness between the two adversaries. The slated encounter in January does not necessarily mean that a meeting in New York has been completely ruled out. But the prospects of such a meeting have widely been seen as dim. Both the leaders are expected to address the UNGA around the same time. Mr. Vajpayee is slated to speak on November 10. He may have some time on January 11 to meet Gen. Musharraf.

Meanwhile, the smaller nations of the subcontinent have been clamouring for an early meeting of the SAARC summit, that has been postponed for a number of reasons. The meeting was originally scheduled to be held at the end of 1999 in Kathmandu.

But following the October 1999 coup by Gen. Musharraf that ousted Mr. Nawaz Sharif, Bangladesh and India had signalled their reluctance to join it. India's post-Kargil rejection of talks with Gen. Musharraf, unless there was an end to cross-border terrorism, had cast a shadow over the SAARC process. But reversing that position last May, Mr. Vajpayee hosted Gen. Musharraf at Agra in July.

India had also began to soften its opposition to the SAARC processes at the political level and allowed a meeting of the South Asian Foreign Secretaries in August in Colombo. The Indian Foreign Secretary, Ms. Chokila Iyer, met her counterpart, Mr.Inamul Haq, on the margins of that meeting. But the post- September 11 tensions between India and Pakistan had once again raised doubts about the SAARC summit. India's green signal now for regional interaction at the highest political level is bound to be welcomed by all its neighbours. Nepal, in particular, is eager to take hold of the SAARC reins.

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