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SAARC Summit Opens With Indian-Pakistani Handshake - 2002-01-05

At a regional summit of leaders from seven south Asian nations, attention is focused on India and Pakistan. Tensions between the two countries, which escalated following the terrorist attack on India's parliament last month, have largely overshadowed the meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC.

Although the Indian and Pakistani leaders shook hands during the meeting, there has been no indication the two leaders are preparing to hold direct talks.

Vedic hymns for peace opened the 11th SAARC summit in Kathmandu, amid an atmosphere of tension and hostility between India and Pakistan.

All eyes were on India's prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, as the summit opened. The two men briefly shook hands during the opening ceremonies, when Mr. Musharraf offered a hand of friendship.

Following the December 13 attack on its parliament by militant Kashmir separatists, India is demanding Pakistan turn over 20 suspected criminals and terrorists and de-escalate violence in Kashmir. New Delhi says Islamabad provided support to the groups it says carried out the attacks - a charge Pakistan denies.

Pakistan has called for direct talks with India, and says New Delhi should reduce its large military build-up along the border between the two countries.

Referring to the long-running Kashmir dispute in his remarks to the summit, Pakistani President Musharraf said his country rejected terrorism, but also believed that a distinction should be made between terrorism and what he described as "legitimate resistance and freedom struggles." He said maintaining peace was paramount.

"My government remains ready to engage in a serious and sustained dialogue with India, at all times, and at all levels. Peace and tranquility between Pakistan and India are essential for progress in South Asia," he said.

General Musharraf said he wanted, "to extend a hand of genuine, sincere friendship to Mr. Vajpayee," a gesture noted by the Indian prime minister in his remarks. However, Mr. Vajpayee said, while he welcomed it, India expects Pakistan to de-escalate violence in Kashmir, before relations can improve.

"I am glad that President Musharraf has extended a hand of friendship to me. I have shaken his hand in your presence. Now, President Musharraf must follow this gesture by not permitting any activity in Pakistan, or in any territory in its control today, which enables terrorists to perpetuate mindless violence in India," Mr. Vajpayee said.

Mr. Vajpayee said he too had extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan, and had been answered with aggression in Kashmir, and the attack on India's parliament. Still, Mr. Vajpayee said, both countries need to chart a course for better relations. Not to do so, he said, would be to betray the peoples of both countries.

Still unresolved at the SAARC summit is whether General Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee will hold direct talks.

India has rejected the idea of talks, but says it is encouraged by a crackdown in Pakistan in recent days on militant Kashmir separatists. Press reports say there is intense diplomatic pressure on both countries to hold a constructive meeting at the summit in a bid to ease tensions between the two nuclear neighbors.