SAARC summit sinks again

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Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Monday said Islamabad was ready to host the summit and that India could attend it virtually if it does not want to participate in-person. However, India says “nothing has changed” that would allow the meeting to take place, reports Asian Lite News

India on Thursday said there was no “material change” in the situation that would allow holding of the stalled SAARC Summit, days after Pakistan reiterated its offer to host it.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Monday said Islamabad was ready to host the summit and that India could attend it virtually if it does not want to participate in-person.

“We have seen media reports regarding Pakistan foreign minister’s remarks about the SAARC summit. You are aware of the background as to why the SAARC summit has not been held since 2014,” External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.

“There has been no material change in the situation since then. Therefore, there is still no consensus that would permit holding of the summit,” he said replying to a question at a media briefing.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a regional bloc comprising India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The SAARC has not been very effective since 2016 as its biennial summits have not taken place since the last one in Kathmandu in 2014.

The 2016 SAARC Summit was to be held in Islamabad. But after the terrorist attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir on September 18 that year, India expressed its inability to participate in the summit due to “prevailing circumstances”.

The summit was called off after Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan also declined to participate in the Islamabad meet.

Asked to comment on Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s reported remarks seeking the international community’s attention against India on the Kashmir issue, Bagchi said the region is an integral and inalienable part of India.

He said the remarks were made by the prime minister of a country that openly encourages cross-border terrorism, provided shelter to Osama bin Laden and whose human rights record is known by the entire world.

India-Pakistan relations are currently at an all-time low following a string of terror attacks on Indian military facilities and troops in recent years that were all blamed on Pakistan-based terror groups, mainly the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Following back channel talks between intelligence officials of both sides, the two countries agreed in February last year to strictly adhere to the 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.

Meanwhile, Pakistan believes it has to hold the SAARC summit this year as Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian crisis after the Taliban takeover, which is why this will be the main agenda.

Talks are still ongoing between New Delhi and Islamabad on how to send 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through Pakistan by road. The matter is apparently stuck on whether or not to send the shipment by Indian trucks, as Pakistan has said it will allow only Afghan trucks to carry this.

According to sources in the Pakistan government, all these issues will be ironed out once the SAARC summit takes place, as seamless movement of passenger and cargo vehicular traffic has been under discussion among the members for a long time.

While no dates have been finalised for the summit yet, sources quoted above said it may take place in the first half of this year.

India had approved the signing and ratification of the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement at the last SAARC summit on 26-27 November 2014 in Kathmandu. This matter has been on hold since then as no further summits have been held.

Addressing a press conference Monday in Islamabad, Qureshi said, “I reiterate the invitation to all SAARC members. Pakistan is willing to host the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad. If India doesn’t want to participate in person, then it can attend virtually also, but they should not stop others from coming.”

He also said, “India has made the SAARC forum dysfunctional. Pakistan considers SAARC an important forum for regional cooperation, regional economic activity, regional trade.”

In 2016, as India decided not to attend the SAARC summit, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan also boycotted it.

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