Pakistani leader pays official visit to wary neighbor India

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in India

REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -- Pakistan's president arrived in India on Sunday, the first official visit a leader from one of the wary neighbors has paid to the other's nation in seven years. No breakthroughs were announced, but both sides hailed the meeting as a sign of easing tensions along one of the world’s most dangerous borders.

Spinmeisters on both sides worked overtime to lower public expectations of the “private” trip that saw Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discuss the 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai, modest though expanding trade links, the disputed territory of Kashmir, and efforts to bring various alleged terrorists to justice.

The Pakistani president then visited a famous Muslim shrine for Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, offering a $1-million contribution.

"I am very satisfied with the outcome of this visit," Singh said. "The relations between India and Pakistan should become normal; that is our common desire."

The rapid-fire luncheon and shrine visit wasn’t enough to overturn long-standing distrust between the nuclear neighbors, however, summed up in a headline in India’s Mail Today tabloid newspaper: Eat, Pray, No Love.

The meeting is part of an apparent effort to follow the diplomatic model in place between India and China, which fought a war in 1962 over their disputed border: put aside the most nettlesome issues for the time being and focus on building investment and trade links that benefit both sides.

Earlier this year, India and Pakistan approved a most-favored-nation agreement, lowering taxes that impede trade. Although India had offered this benefit to Pakistan in 1996, it wasn’t reciprocated until recently. Official two-way trade of about $2.6 billion is heavily weighted in India’s favor.

Sunday’s one-day visit was heavy on symbolism. Zardari invited Singh for a reciprocal visit to Pakistan, which was accepted without setting a date. Rahul Gandhi, the 41-year-old general secretary of India's ruling Congress Party, accepted an invitation for a visit to Pakistan from Zardari's son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 23, again without setting a date.

On other fronts, both sides agreed in principle to ease visa restrictions. India offered its assistance in the wake of this weekend’s massive avalanche in the Siachen glacier area that buried an estimated 130 Pakistanis on Pakistan’s side of the disputed Kashmir border. And the two sides did lots of glad-handing for the cameras.

"We had fruitful bilateral talks," Zardari said. We "hope to meet on Pakistani soil very soon."

But any bid to bring to justice those who planned the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, which killed at least 163 people, was side-stepped. Last week, Washington offered a $10-million reward for information leading to the capture of Pakistani militant Hafeez Saeed, who has widespread support in Pakistan.


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-- Mark Magnier. Tanvi Sharma contributed to this report.

Photo: Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, center, on Sunday visits the renowned 13th century shrine of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, India. Credit: Raveendran / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

 
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