12th SAARC Summit opens in Islamabad
A landmark summit of SAARC countries opened in Islamabad on Sunday with a call from Pakistan for overcoming of political differences for economic growth in the South Asian region and amid calls for unity and promises of a better relationship between India and Pakistan.
Outside, 10,000 police and commandos, mindful of two assassination attempts last month against President Gen Pervez Musharraf, enforced a near lockdown on the deserted streets in an unprecedented show of strength. All shops in a so-called "red zone" around the convention centre were shut.
Motorcades of black armoured Limousines ferried leaders of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives to the Jinnah Convention Centre where the three-day summit will unfold. Colour guards of mounted lancers saluted them.
The summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation will endorse a long-stalled free-trade area aimed at improving the lives of one-fifth of the world's population, including hundreds of millions of its poorest people. The leaders will also update a decades-old agreement to combat international terrorism, bringing it into line with United Nations resolutions to choke off terrorist financing.
But the chief focus will be outside the summit's official multilateral agenda — the steadily improving relations between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, whose hostility ran so deep a year ago that the scheduled summit then was cancelled. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee arrived on Pakistani soil for the first time in nearly five years Saturday and was greeted with exceptional warmth at the airport — closed to commercial flights for security reasons — by his Pakistani counterpart, Zafarullah Khan Jamali.
Jamali and Vajpayee entered the convention center side by side and jointly took their seats.
The scene would have been unimaginable even a year ago, when relations were still poisoned from a suicide attack on India's Parliament on December 13, 2001, by Islamic militants that New Delhi claimed were supported by Pakistan.
Pakistan denied the allegations, but during the 2002 SAARC summit held in Nepal a month later, the two countries were on a war footing with 1 million troops massed along their frontier. Relations have warmed since April, with a cease-fire observed in the disputed territory of Kashmir — which is divided between the two countries but claimed by both in its entirety — and the resumption of diplomatic and transportation links.
Vajpayee has said he will individually meet all the leaders of the SAARC countries on the sidelines of the summit, including host Pakistan. Indian and Pakistani officials have indicated that he will meet Jamali or Musharraf, who is leaving the summit duties to his prime minister but will host a six-hour retreat for the leaders Monday.
But Vajpayee has indicated that he wants talks to stick to regional issues, leaving thorny topics like Kashmir for another time. However, his chief national security adviser arrived in Pakistan on Friday, raising speculation that the topic may be broached, though no breakthrough is expected.
Pakistan fervently hopes that a successful summit will build confidence further and lead to a dialogue on ending the half-century standoff over Kashmir, flashpoint of two of its three wars with India since independence from Britain in 1947.
India has saluted the creation of the free-trade zone, which will see tariffs in the region start to come down by January 1, 2006, as an important step toward creating stability and an atmosphere of solving other disputes.
The summit comes amid a climate of unease over Musharraf's future. The Pakistani leader, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, survived two bombing attacks last month, with at least one of them blamed on Islamic militants opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir.