Musharraf forces 'hand of friendship' on bitter foe

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The Independent Online

"You can't clap with only one hand," Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf remarked recently when asked why it was so difficult to arrange peace talks with India. But yesterday in Kathmandu he succeeded in bouncing India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, into a handshake.

Pakistan's dashing military ruler reaffirmed his reputation for fleet-footed public relations yesterday when at the conclusion of his speech to a regional summit meeting he marched up to Mr Vajpayee on the stage and shook him briskly by the hand. Mr Vajpayee half-rose to his feet and managed a grim little smile.

The armies of the two chronically hostile, nuclear-armed neighbours remain fully mobilised along the 2,000-mile common border, and until yesterday's unscheduled flesh-pressing the two leaders had barely glanced at one another during the conference.

The present crisis erupted on 13 December when five terrorists tried to blast their way into India's parliament building in Delhi. Fourteen people died during the attack, including all the terrorists. India claims they were Pakistani citizens, members of two Islamic militant groups fighting to wrest Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, from Indian control and attach it to Pakistan.

This summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been delayed for over two years by successive Indo-Pakistani disputes and upheavals, and has been completely overshadowed by the latest one. It was the first opportunity for the two sides to meet since the present crisis blew up, but there has been no hint of the hoped-for thaw.

In his speech, President Musharraf said that his government "remains ready to engage in sustained dialogue with India at all times and all levels ... Let us together commence a journey of peace, harmony and progress in South Asia." But he also spoke of the need to identify "the causes that breed terrorists, that drive people to hopelessness and desperation". He drew a distinction between "acts of legitimate resistance and freedom struggles on the one hand, and acts of terrorism on the other".

Under pressure from India, General Musharraf has arrested leaders of the two Pakistan-based groups that India blames for the attacks on its parliament. But he has taken no action against groups with roots in Indian Kashmir, such as Hizb-ul Mujahedin. India refuses to accept this distinction, insisting that Kashmir is an integral part of India and condemning all the militant groups alike.

Following the surprise handshake, Mr Vajpayee left the stage for a few minutes to gather his wits. He then responded by saying: "I am glad that General Musharraf extended a hand of friendship to me ... now [he] must follow the gesture by not permitting any activity in Pakistan or any territory in its control today which enables terrorists to perpetrate mindless violence in India."

Yesterday also brought the news that Pakistani authorities had arrested another 200 militants overnight. Most were members of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a sectarian Sunni group blamed for numerous killings of Shia Muslims and suspected in a massacre of 17 Christians on 28 October 2001. The group is not, however, active in Kashmir.