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Indian, Pakistani leaders aim to normalize ties

- Associated Press - Sunday, April 8, 2012

NEW DELHI (AP) — The leaders of India and Pakistan agreed in talks Sunday that their countries should adopt a step-by-step approach to resolve their differences and build on a recent thaw in their strained relations.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and visiting Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said the meeting — their first in nearly three years — was friendly and constructive.

"Relations between India and Pakistan should become normal. That's our common desire," Mr. Singh told reporters after the private talks, at which no aides were present.

"We would like to have better relations," Mr. Zardari said.

Mr. Singh said he had accepted an invitation from Mr. Zardari to visit Pakistan as soon as mutually acceptable dates are worked out. Before Sunday, the two had not met since June 2009, when they met in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.

"We have a number of issues, but we are willing to find practical and pragmatic solutions to all those issues," Mr. Singh said. "That's the message President Zardari and I would like to convey."

Although Mr. Zardari was in India on what was called a private religious trip, the one-day visit gave him a chance to meet Indian leaders amid a thaw in relations between the two countries.

He later visited Ajmer Sharif, a revered Muslim shrine in India's western state of Rajasthan.

Mr. Zardari's visit to India, the first by a Pakistani head of state in seven years, is the most visible sign that the two countries have put behind them the enmity that followed the 2008 attacks in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai, in which 10 Pakistani terrorists killed 166 people.

India has blamed the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group for the Mumbai attacks and demanded that Islamabad crack down on the militants.

This past week, the United States put a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the group's founder, who operates openly in Pakistan.

Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters that during their 40-minute meeting Sunday, the two leaders agreed to take a step-by-step approach to resolve the many long-standing problems that have dogged their countries' relationship.

Mr. Singh told Mr. Zardari that "it was imperative to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice and prevent activities aimed against India from Pakistani soil," Mr. Mathai said. Mr. Singh said the Indian people would judge progress in the bilateral relationship based on what actions Islamabad takes to curb terror groups operating out of Pakistan, Mr. Mathai said.

Mr. Singh pressed Pakistan to act against Mr. Saeed, seen as the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks.

Mr. Zardari told Mr. Singh the two sides need to discuss the issue further and this would be likely when their interior secretaries meet in the next few weeks.

Mr. Zardari's visit came a day after a massive avalanche buried about 135 Pakistani soldiers near the Siachen glacier in the high Himalayas.

Mr. Zardari insisted that the two sides should resolve their decades-old disputes over the Sir Creek river estuary, Siachen and Kashmir, Mr. Mathai said.

Siachen often is described as the world's highest battlefield. India and Pakistan have stationed thousands of troops in Siachen's icy reaches, the control of which remains a simmering dispute between the two neighbors.

But both sides remain far from resolving their conflict over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which both claim.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since the partition of the subcontinent upon independence from Britain in 1947. Two of the wars have been over Kashmir.

Despite the differences, the two leaders emphasized the importance of keeping up the momentum of the dialogue process that was started last year.

Trade between the two countries has jumped in recent years, and Pakistan recently announced it was lifting trade restrictions on India.

Final touches are being made to a liberalized visa agreement between India and Pakistan that is likely to be signed when the interior secretaries meet, Mr. Mathai said.

Mr. Zardari was accompanied Sunday by about 25 family members, including his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who has been anointed his political heir.

Every day, thousands of believers visit Ajmer Sharif, a shrine to the Sufi Muslim saint Moinudin Chishti, 220 miles southwest of New Delhi.

Mr. Zardari and his family gave prayers at the shrine. Television channels reported that Mr. Zardari made an offering of $1 million. The reports could not be verified independently.

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