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Israel's Ariel Sharon Begins Landmark Visit to India - 2003-09-08


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives Monday in the Indian capital, New Delhi, on a landmark three-day visit. The first-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to India shows the blossoming relationship between the two countries.

Mr. Sharon comes to India with a large delegation that includes cabinet ministers and top defense industry officials.

India, long a supporter of the Palestinian cause, established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992. The relationship improved after a Hindu-nationalist government came to power five years ago.

The strengthening ties are based on defense and security issues. Israel is now the second-largest arms supplier to India after Russia. Both countries also see themselves as victims of Islamic terrorism.

Brahma Chellany, a foreign policy analyst at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, explained that "they are cooperating now in a number of different strategic areas. They are sharing intelligence, the Israelis are training a couple of thousand of Indian special forces in counter-terrorism, and they are also cooperating in the fields of missile defense as well as unmanned air vehicles. So there is a budding relationship," he said.

India's plans to buy an advanced Israeli airborne radar package from Israel will be discussed during the visit. The deal has raised concerns in Pakistan because it will put much of that country under Indian surveillance.

Mr. Sharon holds talks with Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and other top officials on Tuesday. Kashmir, the beleaguered Middle East peace process, and international terrorism will be on the agenda.

Several agreements on issues ranging from combating drug smuggling to protecting the environment will be signed.

Mr. Sharon will meet top Indian business leaders and will spend one day in India's commercial capital, Bombay. Trade between India and Israel is estimated at more than $1.5 billion a year.

Security is tight for the visit. Mr. Sharon has canceled a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, apparently due to security concerns.

The Israeli prime minister is likely to face some demonstrators while in India because his visit has angered India's leftist parties and some Muslim groups. But New Delhi says its growing ties with Israel will not hurt its commitment to the Palestinian cause.

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