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Obama: India, Pakistan to improve relations

NEW DELHI: US President Barack Obama urged India and Pakistan to talk to resolve their differences Sunday as he stressed the need for peace between the neighbours, who are vital for his plans in Afghanistan.

INDIA POLITICS OBAMAVenturing into the delicate area of relations between the nuclear-armed rivals, Obama insisted New Delhi had the most to gain from a stable Pakistan, while urging Islamabad to do more to address extremism.

“My hope is that, over time, trust develops between the two countries, that dialogue begins perhaps on less controversial issues building up to more controversial issues,” he said on the second day of a three-day trip to India.

India is extremely sensitive about outside interference in its relations with Pakistan, particularly over the disputed region of Kashmir, and Obama was keen to avoid upsetting his host or angering Pakistan, a key anti-terror ally.

“I am absolutely convinced that the country that has the biggest stake in Pakistan is India,” he told students at the prestigious St Xavier’s College in south Mumbai.

“If Pakistan is stable and prosperous, that’s best for India,” he added.

Both countries are vying for influence in Afghanistan, from where US troops will begin withdrawing in 2011, and Obama wants the Pakistani army to fight extremists on its western border rather than worry about India in the east.

He said Islamabad was making progress against what he called the “cancer” of extremism – which is often directed at India – but not quickly enough.

“Progress is not as quick as we would like,” he added, noting that many militants were holed up in the rugged northwestern Pakistani regions close to the Afghan border.

Earlier, Obama opened the second day of his visit by dancing with his wife Michelle and local schoolchildren at celebrations for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light.

In mid-afternoon, he flew to the Indian capital, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the official leg of his trip.

Obama has frequently praised Singh as a leading global statesman, and their mutual regard appeared evident in the smiles and warmth of the often inscrutable Indian premier.

Talks between the two on Monday will look to build on a small but growing trade relationship, with Obama looking for export opportunities, as well as engagement from India politically in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Among other things, Singh is likely to press Obama for a more concrete commitment to support India’s quest for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.

Obama’s remarks on Pakistan did not break new diplomatic ground for the United States – his government has said before that Pakistan must do more on extremism – but were highly significant given their venue in Mumbai.

A total of 166 people were killed in November 2008 attacks in the city blamed on the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) extremist group, which is based on Pakistani soil.

The US president arrived in India looking to inject new momentum into a strategic relationship for Washington, while aware of the need to rebuild his reputation at home after a drubbing in mid-term elections.

He and wife Michelle, who charmed her hosts by dancing with school children on Saturday and Sunday, appeared to be hitting the right notes by stressing India’s economic emergence and Washington’s desire for partnership.

“The United States does not just see India as a rising power, we believe India is already risen,” the US president said, noting his host’s dynamic economy, youthful population and rising strategic clout in Asia and beyond.

The president also showed evidence of the evolution of his thinking following his Democratic Party’s electoral defeat back in the United States.

“It requires me to make some mid-course corrections and adjustments,” Obama said, vowing however to stick to the beliefs and ideas that would “move America forward”, including investing in education, clean energy and infrastructure.

Obama started his India visit, the first stop of a four-nation Asian tour, on Saturday, unveiling 10 billion dollars in trade deals designed to bankroll US jobs after voters handed him a severe rebuke in mid-term elections Tuesday.

Commercial agreements included a 7.7-billion-dollar contract for Boeing to supply 30 of its 737 aircraft to India’s SpiceJet airline. — AFP

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