Frosty beginning to Brown's new deal for Pakistan
Allegra Stratton in Islamabad
Sydney Morning Herald
April 29, 2009
THE British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has attempted to brush off an apparent snub by Pakistan as it protested against the arrest and planned deportation of 11 Pakistani students suspected of a terrorist plot in Britain.
Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, pulled out of a planned press conference with Mr Brown, but its Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, took his place.
“It is entirely appropriate that he has a press conference with his counterpart,” said a spokesman for Mr Brown. Mr Brown and the Pakistan President met later on Monday.
However, Mr Brown repeated his assertion last made on his December visit that three-quarters of Islamic terrorist threats originate in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On a whistlestop tour of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr Brown announced plans for a new strategy to tackle the “crucible of terrorism” on the border of the two countries. In a press conference in Islamabad, the British Prime Minister hailed a “new chapter” in relations between Britain and Pakistan.
But he faced appeals from the Pakistan Government for the students, arrested a fortnight ago but later released without charge, to be allowed to stay in Britain. The British Home Office refused to share any information about the arrests with Pakistan.
Mr Brown's visit came as a controversial peace deal with the Taliban in Pakistan's Swat Valley came under intense pressure. The Pakistan Army continued its assault on guerilla hideouts in a nearby district, bringing the reported death toll to nearly 50 after two days of fighting.
Thousands of villagers fled Lower Dir, a strategically important district along the Afghan border, as army helicopter gunships clattered overhead and artillery boomed across the hills.
A spokesman for Sufi Muhammad, a 78-year-old jihadi cleric who helped broker the February peace agreement between the Government and the Taliban, announced he was suspending talks until the military offensive was over.
The army claimed to have killed 20 Taliban on Monday morning in addition to 26 on Sunday. The Taliban claimed to have suffered just two fatalities and accused the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, of taking American “blood money”.
In Islamabad, Mr Zardari tried to assuage Western concerns about the safety of the country's nuclear arsenal. “I want to assure the world the nuclear capability of Pakistan is in safe hands,” he told reporters. “It's not like any little Taliban can come and press a button.”
Mr Zardari also raised the possibility that Osama bin Laden was dead, saying that intelligence officials could find “no trace” of the al-Qaeda chief. He said neither his own advisers in Pakistan nor US intelligence agencies had detected any sign of bin Laden since Al-Jazeera television broadcast an audio recording of his voice in March. But even then, unlike on previous occasions, the authenticity of the voice was not confirmed by the CIA.
“There is no news. They obviously feel that he does not exist any more, but that's not confirmed,” he said.
Mr Zardari's predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, similarly suggested the Saudi-born terrorism chief could be dead. However, US officials have repeatedly stated that bin Laden could yet be hiding in the mountainous region straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border.
On his return to Britain today, Mr Brown will unveil a new British doctrine, mirroring the “AFPAK” strategy of the US President, Barack Obama. . Britain will send 900 extra troops, and 15 million ($31 million) of aid, to help the Afghans with their upcoming election. Mr Brown will also redirect existing aid to Pakistan. Of the 655 million package over four years, Britain's second largest aid budget, half will be directed to the troubled northern areas of Pakistan.