Rising political tensions between Britain and Pakistan were exposed yesterday after President Asif Ali Zardari pulled out of a joint press conference with Gordon Brown, in an apparent protest at the Prime Minister's demand that Islamabad act more decisively against militancy and the arrests of 11 Pakistani students this month who were later released without charge.
He was replaced by Pakistan's Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, with President Zardari only meeting Mr Brown behind closed doors afterwards. Downing Street denied the change of plan was a deliberate move to embarrass Mr Brown, but it came amid a growing rift between the two countries after the arrest of 11 students from Pakistan as part of a terrorism investigation two weeks ago.
Home Office officials refused to share the details of the investigation with their Pakistani counterparts, despite No 10 claiming that the level of counter-terrorism co-operation with Pakistan was the highest it had with any country. Officials in Pakistan have also been stung by Mr Brown's repeated claims that three-quarters of all terror investigations in Britain have links to Pakistan, a statement he repeated yesterday morning.
On a whistle-stop tour of Afghanistan and Pakistan the Prime Minister urged both countries to work together to tackle the "crucible of terrorism" that lies in the tribal badlands along their shared border. "It's important to recognise that if we do not take action and we do not fight back against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, then people in Britain and in other countries represented here are less safe," Mr Brown said yesterday.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said it was up to the Pakistan government to decide who they wanted to represent it at press conferences. "I don't think anything more should be read into it. The Prime Minister's direct counterpart is Prime Minister Gilani."
A senior aide to Mr Zardari meanwhile said that the Pakistani president's absence was the product of an power struggle with Mr Gilani. Over recent months, Mr Gilani has grown more assertive and there is pressure on Mr Zardari to accept a more ceremonial role.
But President Zardari's absence was at odds with previous trips by Mr Brown. The two had appeared together at a press conference during the British leader's last visit to Pakistan in December. In an admission that the relationship with Pakistan had become increasingly strained in recent weeks, a Downing street spokesman said: "It is important we have an open exchange of views".
Islamabad has long bristled at suggestions that it is not doing enough to fight the militant threat within its borders. Mr Brown's remarks demanding that Pakistan do more came swiftly on the heels of calls from senior figures in the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for more robust action against a burgeoning Taliban threat. Ms Clinton said that Pakistan faced a "mortal threat" from within.
In a rare outburst at the weekend, Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani hit out at Western criticism. Insisting that his troops were prepared to face down any threat, he denounced "pronouncements by outside powers raising doubts on the future of the country".
Yesterday, troops backed by helicopter gunships continued to pound Taliban militants in the Lower Dir region of the northwest. The army claimed that it had killed a total of 46 militants in their hideouts with artillery fire and airstrikes in the last two days, in a move prompted by the spread of Taliban militants into areas adjoining Swat. Last week alarm spread in Western capitals as the Taliban seized control of Buner, a strategically located region less than 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad. After negotiations, the militants have scaled back their presence but remain hunkered down in the valley.
The latest military offensive threatens to sever the government's February truce with militants in the Swat Valley, a prospect that will ease anxieties in Washington and London.
Mr Brown's visit comes at a sensitive time for British-Pakistani relations. This month's arrests of Pakistani students in the north of England sparked a diplomatic row as Pakistan's High Commissioner to London accused London of casting blame on his government and presiding over a "hoax".
"I don't think it's any secret that relations between the two sides have deteriorated since the recent arrests," said Farzana Shaikh of Chatham House. "Pakistan has also taken very grave exception to Gordon Brown's claim that Pakistan's northwest regions serve as a crucible of terrorism."
The detained students have launched an appeal to halt their planned deportation. "We are providing them with legal assistance and we don't want them to be deported," said a senior Pakistani diplomat. "If they've dropped the charges, why are they continuing to hold them? They should be allowed to continue their studies if they wish."Reuse content