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India, Pak foreign ministers to meet on UNGA sidelines

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Imran Khan’s letter to Modi may break ice!

New Delhi/Islamabad, Sep 20: Foreign ministers of India and Pakistan will meet on sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the government announced Thursday, the first such high-level engagement since suspension of dialogue between the two nations after the Pathankot air base attack in 2016.

Announcing the meeting between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar, however, made it clear it is not a resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue and India agreed to the meeting following a request from Pakistan.

He also insisted the decision doesn’t change the country’s position on “cross-border terrorism”.

During the meeting, likely to take place next week, India is expected to strongly raise the issue of “terrorism emanating from the Pakistani soil”.

The Swaraj-Qureshi meeting will be the first engagement at this level since January 2016 when New Delhi halted the dialogue with Islamabad in the aftermath of Pathankot militant attack, for which India holds Pakistan-based groups responsible.

Indo-Pak ties have nose-dived since then in view of a number of militant attacks blamed on Pakistan-based groups, which India retaliated by carrying out “surgical strikes” in September 2016 across the LoC. India has been maintaining that terror and talks cannot go together.

“I must distinguish between a meeting and dialogue. This does not indicate any change in policy as far as our stand on terrorism and cross-border terrorism is concerned,” the MEA spokesperson said at a media briefing.

The last meeting between the two foreign ministers was held during Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad in December 2015 to attend the ‘Heart of Asia’ Summit, where she had met he then Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz.

After the meeting, the two sides had announced resumption of Indo-Pak dialogue under the comprehensive bilateral format, but the initiative did not take off after the Pathankot air base attack.

Kumar said Swaraj will also attend the SAARC foreign ministers’ meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA.

India agreed to Swaraj-Qureshi meeting following a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan seeking a ministerial interaction on the sidelines of the UNGA.

Separately, the Pakistan Foreign Minister has also written a letter to Swaraj reiterating Khan’s proposal for a meeting. Both the letters were handed over to India on September 17 by Pakistan High Commissioner, Kumar said.

The date for the meeting was being finalised by the permanent missions of the two countries in New York, he said adding the agenda for the meeting is yet to be finalised.

Swaraj is scheduled to leave for New York on September 22 morning and return on September 30.

Earlier, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote a letter to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, the Pakistan Foreign Office said here Thursday, seeking to re-start the bilateral talks on key issues “challenging the relationship” including on terrorism and Kashmir.

In the letter dated September 14, the cricketer-turned-politician, who became the prime minister last month, proposed a meeting between Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this month.

“Building on the mutual desire for peace between our two countries, I wish to propose a meeting between Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, before the informal meeting of the SAARC foreign ministers at the sidelines of the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York,” Khan wrote.

Pakistan and India have an “undeniably challenging relationship”, he said, while responding to Modi’s letter to him on August 18.

In the letter to Khan, Modi conveyed India’s commitment to pursue “meaningful” and “constructive” engagement with Pakistan and emphasising the need to work for a terror-free South Asia.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson Mohammad Faisal said on Twitter: “PM (Imran Khan) has responded to PM Modi, in a positive spirit, reciprocating his sentiments. Let’s talk and resolve all issues. We await formal response from India.”

In the letter to Modi, Khan wrote: “We, however, owe it to our peoples, especially the future generations, to peacefully resolve all outstanding issues, including the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, to bridge differences and achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.”

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief thanked Prime Minister Modi for his “warm greetings” and best wishes on his assumption of charge as the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The two ministers (Qureshi and Swaraj) could explore the way forward, Khan said, adding that the SAARC Summit in Islamabad “will offer an opportunity for you to visit Pakistan and for us to re-start the stalled dialogue process”.

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