New Delhi (AFP): President Asif Ali Zardari will on Sunday become the first Pakistani head of state since 2005 to visit arch-rival India when he makes a trip that includes lunch with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
During what officials from both sides describe as a “private” one-day visit, Zardari will meet the Indian premier in New Delhi before heading to an important Muslim shrine in Ajmer to offer prayers.
The trip has received a cautious welcome from analysts who say it reflects some improvement in ties since the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistan-based militants.
But they warned little progress could be expected on sensitive topics such as the disputed region of Kashmir and Pakistani militant activity against India that make the cross-border relationship one of the most dangerous in the world.
“Zardari expressed a desire to visit India primarily for a pilgrimage, and it is only correct that we welcome him to the capital,” G. Parthasarathy, a retired Indian diplomat and former high commissioner to Pakistan, told AFP.
“There will be talks and I expect the prime minister to raise issues such as our concerns over terrorism. Relations were rock bottom in 2008 so they have improved.”
Zardari was due to land in New Delhi at 11:00 am (0530 GMT) and meet Singh at his residence before flying south to Ajmer in the afternoon and returning to Islamabad in the evening.
But overshadowing Zardari’s visit was an avalanche Saturday which smashed into a Pakistan army camp, burying up to 135 people, mostly soldiers, on the de facto border with India, in an area known as the world’s highest battleground.
Pakistani troops were frantically trying to find signs of life in the snow after the avalanche in disputed Kashmir over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars.
Pakistani officials said among 40 family members and staff expected to accompany Zardari will be Interior Minister Rehman Malik, potentially undermining the trip’s “private” status.
The Times of India reported that Zardari’s 23-year-old son and heir apparent, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, would also join the group.
“This is a largely symbolic occasion and contentious subjects will be avoided,” said Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.
Pakistan foreign policy is seen as preserve of the powerful military, and Chellaney suggested Zardari wielded little real power in the country.
“You can’t have substantive talks with someone who doesn’t run anything,” he said.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from British rule in 1947 and also carried out tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998.
The two countries came to the brink of conflict most recently in 2001, and tensions again peaked after the Mumbai attacks during which 166 people died in carnage blamed on Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
Zardari’s visit comes shortly after the United States issued a $10 million bounty for Hafiz Saeed, the founder of LeT who lives openly in Pakistan.
Trade is one area of discussion that the two leaders may find fruitful as Pakistan moves to normalise trade ties by phasing out major restrictions on Indian imports by the end of the year.
In 1996, India granted Pakistan “most preferred nation” trading status, while Pakistan last year agreed in principle to match the move.
The last Pakistan president to visit India was Pervez Musharraf, who also offered prayers at the shrine of sufi saint Moinudin Chishti in Ajmer, 350 kilometres (220 miles) southwest of Delhi.
The shrine is one of South Asia’s most popular pilgrimage sites, attracting throngs of devotees from across the globe.
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