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India-Pak tensions cited – SAARC summit in doubt

NEW DELHI, Sept 28, (Agencies): A key South Asian summit was in doubt Wednesday after India and three other countries pulled out following a deadly attack on an army base that New Delhi blames on a Pakistan-based group. India has sought to isolate Pakistan in the wake of the raid on its base in the disputed region of Kashmir, which killed 18 soldiers and triggered public fury.

On Tuesday it said Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad in November, in a major snub to its neighbour. Without naming Pakistan, India’s foreign ministry said “increasing crossborder terrorist attacks in the region and growing interference in the internal affairs of member states by one country” had created an environment that was not conducive for a meeting. Hours later, Bangladesh said it was also pulling out.

Afghanistan and Bhutan — both close India allies — have since followed suit, according to a SAARC official who asked not to be named. “Pakistan has been interfering in our internal affairs for some time,” a senior Bangladesh foreign ministry official told AFP, requesting anonymity. “That’s why we have pulled out of the SAARC summit.” Under pressure to act after the Kashmir raid, Modi warned Pakistan in a major speech on Saturday that India would push to make it a pariah state. Pakistan denies any involvement in the attack, the worst of its kind in over a decade. But India’s army has blamed Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistanbased militant group that was also implicated in an audacious assault on an Indian air force base in the northern town of Pathankot in January.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since partition in 1947, two of them over Kashmir, where the two countries regularly exchange fire across the disputed border. At the last SAARC summit in 2014 a newly-elected Modi shook hands with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, raising hopes of warmer ties. Just over a year later Modi made a surprise Christmas Day visit to Pakistan for a meeting with Sharif. But those hopes were dashed by the Pathankot attack in which seven Indian soldiers died, and peace talks have been on ice ever since.

Current SAARC chair Nepal would not comment on speculation the summit would be cancelled, but said it would issue a statement later in the day. The leaders of the eight SAARC countries — which also include Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives — expressed frustration after the last summit in Kathmandu with the slow pace of progress towards greater regional integration. Analysts say this is down to the mutual mistrust between Pakistan and powerhouse India.

Cyril Almeida, a columnist in Pakistan’s English-language daily Dawn, said India’s move to exclude Pakistan from regional discussions was not unexpected. “Diplomatically, (it’s) maybe not a big deal for Pakistan given that SAARC is widely perceived as ineffective,” he said. “But (it’s) a fresh sign of Pakistan not being in a comfortable place in its own region.”

Meanwhile, China on Wednesday called on Pakistan and India to solve their differences over Kashmir, as tensions mount between the nucleararmed neighbours after an attack killed 18 Indian soldiers in the disputed Himalayan region. India has long accused Pakistan of backing militant groups operating in disputed Kashmir, as well as of sending fighters to other parts of the country to carry out acts of violence.

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