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Pakistan Prepares for Vajpayee Visit - 2003-12-31

Pakistan is hoping for a further warming of relations with India as it prepares for the first visit by an Indian leader in almost five years.

Leaders from the seven nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation - known as SAARC - converge on Islamabad Sunday. None is the focus of as much attention as Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Mr. Vajpayee last visited Pakistan in 1999.

But after that trip, relations between the rival nations were spoiled by a military clash over the disputed territory of Kashmir and a terror attack on India's Parliament, which New Delhi blamed in part on Pakistan. For months, the two nuclear-armed neighbors were on the verge of war, and the 2003 SAARC conference was canceled largely because of the tension between them.

Relations remained tense until last April, when Mr. Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, began exchanging a series of peace gestures. These culminated with a cease-fire late this year, ending almost daily shelling across the Line of Control separating Pakistani- and Indian-held portions of Kashmir.

Now, amid the new spirit of goodwill, many on the Pakistan side are hoping Mr. Vajpayee's visit will result in a major break-through on the decades-old Kashmir problem.

But as Pakistani political commentator Ayaz Amir notes, such hopes may be set too high. "I think Pakistan's expectations are a bit unrealistic, because we are looking not at SAARC but at India. And I think in the Pakistani mind there is the belief that there will be some movement forward," he says.

Since the summit itself will deal with region-wide issues, progress on the Kashmir question will depend on a separate meeting between Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf. Though Pakistan has expressed its willingness for talks on the summit sidelines, India has yet to agree.

In a statement to Pakistani reporters, Indian Foreign Secretary Shashank said no meeting is planned, but he did not rule out the possibility one could take place. Mr. Shashank says that even without a formal bilateral meeting, the two leaders will certainly have opportunities to talk during the summit's various social gatherings.

Mr. Amir says Pakistani views on the success of the summit will rest on what comes out of any contact between Mr. Musharraf and Mr. Vajpayee. "Pakistan's expectations of bliss and happiness over the next week really rest upon Mr. Vajpayee's wishes."

While Pakistan is hopeful for private meetings, Indian officials have so far maintained that leader-to-leader talks on Kashmir will have to wait until progress on current peace moves - such as the cease-fire and the resumption of travel links - prove successful.