ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Thursday welcomed the leaders of Afghanistan and Iran for a regional summit at a key juncture in peace efforts with the Taliban and amid rising tensions between Tehran and Israel.
Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew into Islamabad in the afternoon for a formal summit meeting scheduled on Friday to be followed by a joint news conference, Pakistan government officials said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived earlier in the day for a series of talks with the government and the military on his second visit in nine months.
His office said separate talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani would focus on expanding relations, economic ties and “enhanced cooperation” on ending 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and senior government ministers were also present, officials said.
Karzai termed Pakistan’s support as “critical to the success” of an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process and the reconciliation.
Pakistan, the historic ally of the Taliban, says it will do anything required by Kabul to support an Afghan-led peace process, but there is a wide degree of scepticism in Afghanistan and the United States about its sincerity.
“Both sides agreed on the need to strengthen mutual cooperation to overcome the common challenges of terrorism and extremism and expressed their resolve to work for the stability and peace of both the countries,” Gilani’s office said.
Karzai hailed his trip to Pakistan as one of the most important in the past 10 years, his office said.
“He thanked Pakistan for cooperation in the investigation of the assassination of Professor Rabbani in which two suspects have been arrested,” it said.
The assassination in September of the Afghan government’s peace mission head Burhanuddin Rabbani by a suicide bomber who purported to be a peace envoy for the Taliban derailed efforts to talk peace with the militants.
Calling terrorism a common enemy that threatened people on both sides of the border, Karzai said it was imperative for the two countries to continue to maintain deep and sincere relations, his office said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar visited Kabul this month on a fence-mending visit amid reports that Kabul and Islamabad felt isolated by contacts between the United States and the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar.
But in an interview published in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Karzai said the Afghan government was part of three-way peace efforts.
There has been no Taliban confirmation of talks with Karzai’s government.
“There have been contacts between the US government and the Taliban, there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there have been some contacts that we have made, all of us together, including the Taliban,” Karzai was quoted as saying.
He did not mention any Pakistani involvement, but said cooperation from Islamabad “would make the whole matter easier”.
Pakistan says the trilateral summit will focus on cooperation on counter-terrorism and transnational organised crime including drug and human trafficking, border management and trade issues.
Islamabad is moving towards a detente in its own relations with Washington, which took a drastic turn for the worse over last year’s covert American raid that killed Osama bin Laden and air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
But despite strong US objections, Pakistan says it is pressing ahead with a multi-billion-dollar project to build a gas pipeline to import fuel from Iran.
Israel this week accused Iran of targeting its diplomats in Georgia, India and Thailand, against a backdrop of speculation that the Jewish state or the United States could be months from launching military strikes against Iran.
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad unveiled new strides in Tehran’s nuclear programme in a defiant blow to US and EU sanctions designed to rein in its atomic activities.
“I don’t think so,” a senior Pakistani government official told AFP when asked if mounting tensions between Iran and Israel, and the showdown over Iran’s nuclear programme, would dominate the summit.