- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — India’s prime minister made a historic visit to Pakistan ahead of a key regional summit yesterday, greeted with a warm handshake by his counterpart in an airport ceremony that would have been unimaginable just one year ago.

Seventy-nine-year-old Atal Behari Vajpayee slowly made his way down the airplane stairs before greeting a line of senior Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali.

Mr. Vajpayee reviewed a color guard of Pakistani soldiers, waved to dignitaries and was then whisked away in a limousine. He made no comment but appeared to chat warmly with his Pakistani counterpart.

Before leaving New Delhi, Mr. Vajpayee said that he would not discuss outstanding bilateral disputes in talks with Pakistani leaders, intending instead to focus on the seven-nation South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, which has already shown signs of building on a thaw between the nuclear-armed rivals.

“There will be no bilateral talks in Islamabad,” Mr. Vajpayee said in an interview with Indian state-run television. “If this summit becomes successful and opens up the road to cooperation, it will be very good. It will also help in resolving disputes in other areas.”

Mr. Vajpayee’s plane touched down at Islamabad international airport at about 3:30 p.m., his first visit to the country since a February 1999 meeting with then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.

Hours before his arrival, one of the deadliest Pakistan-based militant groups fighting Indian rule in the divided territory of Kashmir — and also a suspect in at least one of the recent attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf — pledged that Mr. Vajpayee would not be targeted on Pakistani soil.

“He is Pakistan’s guest,” Sahrai Baba, the spokesman for Jaish-e-Mohammed, told the Associated Press by telephone. “Our people will not touch him.”

Pakistani authorities have accused Jaish-e-Mohammed of staging a suicide bombing a week ago against Gen. Musharraf’s motorcade, just two weeks after he survived another bombing.

Gen. Musharraf banned Jaish-e-Mohammed in January 2002, shortly after New Delhi accused the group of involvement in a suicide attack on India’s Parliament on Dec. 13, 2001. The attack ratcheted up tensions that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of their fourth war.

Since last April, the countries have worked to improve relations. The rapprochement was evident Friday, when the countries — the chief powers in the regional forum — led debate on a framework agreement that would create a regional free trade zone.

The trade zone could ultimately improve the economic fortunes of some of the hundreds of millions of poor living in South Asia through greater investment and employment opportunities.

The three-day summit starts today and brings together the leaders of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives and Bhutan for the first time in two years.

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