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Singh tones down hopes for Pakistani premier talks

AFP-JIJI, AP

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday toned down expectations for a planned meeting with Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif on Sunday at the United Nations, saying Pakistan remains an “epicenter of terrorism.”

Singh, making what will likely be a farewell visit to the White House after a decade in power, told President Barack Obama that India still faces “difficulties” because of the activities of its neighbor and bitter rival.

Singh and Sharif are expected to hold a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York as they reach for better relations despite heightened cross-border tensions.

“I look forward to the meeting with Nawaz Sharif even though the expectations have to be toned down given the terrorist arm which is still active in our subcontinent,” Sharif told reporters in the Oval Office.

Singh told Obama that India is facing difficulties because the “epicenter of terrorist activity remains focused in Pakistan.”

India has blamed militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and even elements of the Pakistani state for attacks on its soil, including the 2008 assault on Mumbai that left 166 people dead.

Deadly skirmishes across the two countries’ de facto border in divided Kashmir, meanwhile, have jeopardized the atmosphere for the meeting in New York, which comes months after bilateral peace talks stalled again.

Since winning power in May, Sharif has been vocal in his desire for better relations with India, but the recent flare-ups have overshadowed the prospects. Earlier, Sharif warmed up for the expected talks by saying that a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan has been a huge waste of money.

“Our two countries have wasted massive resources in an arms race,” Sharif said in his speech to the General Assembly. “We could have used those resources for the economic well-being of our people.”

“We still have that opportunity. Pakistan and India can prosper together; and the entire region would benefit from our cooperation,” he added.

He took aim at U.S. drone strikes against Islamic militants on Pakistani soil, calling it a violation of the nation’s territorial integrity and one that kills civilians and hurts efforts to combat extremism.

Sharif had conciliatory words for Afghanistan, which accuses Pakistan of supporting Taliban rebels. “We have no favorites” in the neighboring country, Sharif said.

He said Pakistan has lost over 40,000 lives to terrorism in the past 12 years and will use “all means at our disposal” to fight it.

Singh’s visit to the White House had a valedictory tone, as he is not expected to lead his Congress party into elections next year, with his political fortunes battered by a slowing economy and corruption claims during two five-year terms.

Obama praised Singh as a “great friend and partner to the United States and to me personally during his tenure as prime minister of India.” Obama said that just in the past few days, India and the United States had concluded a first commercial agreement which will breathe new life into a slowed civilian nuclear pact between the two countries.

Indian authorities and American firms had been haggling over liability payments that will have to be shelled out in the event of a nuclear disaster at any new power plants.

Obama also noted that the recent victory of an Indian-American woman in the Miss America beauty pageant is a sign of how close the countries have become connected in human, economic and cultural terms.

Singh also pointedly thanked Obama for “his vision, for his courage in giving diplomacy yet another chance” as he has responded to a chemical weapons attack in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program. And he stressed a warming of relations with Washington as a highlight of his premiership.

Obama has seen improving ties with New Delhi as a centerpiece of his strategy of shifting U.S. economic and diplomatic resources to Asia, and views India’s vibrant democracy as a kindred national spirit in a region where political freedoms can be fleeting.

“All of us recognize that as the world’s two largest democracies, countries that have for a very long time been invested in, you know, the peace and prosperity of their own people, that there is a natural convergence between the United States and India,” Obama said.

Obama hosted Singh for the first state dinner of his presidency in 2009 and paid his own state visit to India a year later. Vice President Joe Biden was in India in June and a long string of senior U.S. administration officials have trekked to the country.

Obama and Singh met at a high point of U.S.-India defense cooperation. New Delhi has bought nearly $9 billion in American defense articles since 2008, officials say, and both sides want to do more business.

Neither leader, however, publicly mentioned New Delhi’s alarm at visa reforms in a proposed U.S. immigration bill in Congress that India says could disproportionately punish its thriving information technology and software sectors.