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SAARC Meets Saturday Amid Tensions Between Pakistan, India - 2002-01-04

Leaders from the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, known as SAARC, officially begin their summit later Saturday -after postponing for 24 hours following the delayed arrival of Pakistan's President, due to bad weather.

The summit agenda has been largely overshadowed by the tensions between India and Pakistan.

SAARC heads of state want freer trade between their states, more poverty alleviation programs and a joint policy on terrorism. But nearly all of their attention will likely be focused on the dispute between India and Pakistan, that has brought the region to the brink of war.

Indian officials continue to insist that no face-to-face bilateral discussions will take place between India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf. Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Nirupama Rao said the current climate is not conducive to such talks.

"Under the present circumstances, especially in the wake of what happened in New Delhi on December 13, when the seat of our democracy was attacked in a terrorist attack on parliament, a certain threshold was crossed. We believe in the response to the demands we have made on Pakistan that certain meaningful action is required of Pakistan before such a dialogue is initiated," she said.

India says Pakistan should hand over 20 criminal and terrorist suspects it says are living in Pakistan. Pakistani officials say India has yet to provide substantive proof to back up its request.

Major General Rashid Querishi, Pakistan's presidential spokesman, has said Islamabad continues to hope that New Delhi will respond to its offer of talks.

"Pakistan continues to hope that India will respond to Pakistan's time and again efforts for dialogue and talks. Obviously now it depends on India," he said.

General Querishi has said the mutual military build-up along the India-Pakistan border and along the line of control in Kashmir is dangerous, adding India should take steps to de-escalate.

He also says General Musharraf's visit to Beijing had resulted in reassurances from Chinese officials to support Pakistan in all eventualities in its current dispute with India.