Pakistan and India soothe nuclear fears

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The Independent Online
IN THEIR summit meeting in Lahore, the first to be held on Pakistani soil for ten years, the prime ministers of Pakistan and India took steps yesterday to allay the world's fears that south Asia has become a dangerous new nuclear flashpoint.

In what they called the Lahore Declaration, signed in imperial grandeur in the Lahore governor's residence under the eyes of long-dead British governors of undivided Punjab, they pledged their two nations to "a vision of peace and stability ... and of progress and prosperity for their peoples". They also vowed to take "immediate steps" to reduce "the risk of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons" - without further elaboration.

In a memorandum of understanding released at the same time, they promised to give each other advance notice of ballistic missile flights, and to abide by their existing respective moratoriums on nuclear testing, unless circumstances dictated otherwise. According to India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was discussed but no decision was taken on signing it.

Although described in advance as the most importance political breakthrough between the two countries for one-quarter of a century, the agreement was otherwise long on tender sentiment but short on fresh, concrete initiatives. As had been predicted, the feud over Kashmir was addressed only for the purpose of side-stepping it, though the premiers promised to "intensify the dialogue process" over the state's future.

But even on the question of nuclear security, the statements were vague. Nearly a year after India's nuclear tests, the best formula they could devise was to "undertake a review of the existing communication links ... with a view to upgrading and improving these links, and to provide for fail-safe and secure communications". There seemed to be startling complacency about the impossibility of anything much going amiss before the civil servants have undertaken their leisurely review.

Warm sentiment, however, is where it needs to start and Mr Vajpayee provided that in buckets yesterday. An amateur poet whose work has just been release in Urdu' he treated Lahoris at a teaparty on the lawns of the governor's residence to a characteristic extemporaneous oration, full of alarmingly long pauses and flight of lyrical fancy.

He told the audience of his hatred of nuclear weapons. "At the time of the nuclear blasts, I was reminded of the poem I wrote when I visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he said. "I want to make it clear that those bombs were used not for defence and they are still a source of suffering to people who are still leading very difficult lives. We want a nuclear- free world. We will not use nuclear weapons. We want to build friendship."

At the joint press conference, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, like the businessman that he is, spoke more bluntly and to the point of the need to "comprehensively recreate our relationship ... we must bring peace and prosperity to south Asia. We owe this to the future generations."

Outside, the crows were circling over a city whose calm was not all it appeared. Earlier in the day more than 20 people were injured in clashes between police and protesters belonging to Jamaat-i-Islami Party. Elsewhere in the city thousands of riot police and soldiers clamped a sullen peace on the city. After his historic bus ride from India to Pakistan, Mr Vajpayee went home the fast way - by aircraft - from a country whose commitment to neighbourly amity is still less than total.