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SAARC Opening Ceremony Postponed - 2002-01-04

Opening ceremonies at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Kathmandu have been postponed by 24 hours. The postponement makes it highly unlikely that direct talks will take place at the summit between the leaders of India and Pakistan.

A statement from Nepal's Foreign Ministry says the SAARC summit opening, originally scheduled for Friday, has been postponed until Saturday for what it calls "special reasons."

Privately, officials say the late arrival of Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, Friday afternoon is the reason the summit was pushed back 24 hours. General Musharraf's plane was delayed by heavy fog in the Kathmandu valley, and also in China, where Pakistan's leader had been holding talks with senior officials prior to his departure for Kathmandu.

The seven SAARC leaders will be together late Friday at an official banquet hosted by Nepal's King Gyanendra, but officials close to the summit say a private retreat scheduled for the seven leaders on Saturday appears unlikely to take place.

The retreat would have been the only time General Musharraf and India's prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, would have met informally. Mr. Vajpayee has ruled out a meeting with General Musharraf in Kathmandu. For his part, General Musharraf says he is coming to Kathmandu with what he describes as an "open mind " on improving relations with India.

Ashfaq Gondal, the principal information officer for the government of Pakistan, says there will be some interaction between the two leaders - at least under the umbrella of the SAARC agenda.

"Some effort, some meeting will take place, which will ease tensions between the two neighboring countries, because that is the prerequisite for the promotion of the SAARC charter, which is cooperation for economic development," he said. "When there is tension between the two member states, how can you think of cooperation?"

India blames Pakistan for supporting the two militant Kashmir separatist groups it says carried out the attacks against its Parliament on December 13. Pakistan denies any role in the attack, but says it does offer moral and diplomatic support to Kashmir separatists fighting Indian rule.

In recent days, tensions have eased somewhat between New Delhi and Islamabad, with India's foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, praising the arrests by Pakistan of members of the two groups he says carried out the parliament attack. However Mr. Singh also says, before any substantive talks can begin between New Delhi and Islamabad, Indian officials want to see a de-escalation of violence in Kashmir.