Aziz heads to Amritsar as Heart of Asia kicks off

Islamabad, Dec 3 (IANS) The Heart of Asia ministerial conference began in Amritsar on Saturday amid heightened tensions between Pakistan and India, triggering speculation whether the two countries will engage in bilateral talks on the sidelines of the event.

Adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz will travel to Amritsar for the conference on Sunday.

Aziz is leading the Pakistani delegation to the meeting that focuses on regional cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours to improve connectivity and tackle security threats in the war-torn country.

The opening meeting on Saturday will discuss and finalise the text for Sunday’s 6th Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates are part of the Heart of Asia initiative launched in 2011 for encouraging economic and security cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours for dealing with the common problems of terrorism, extremism and poverty.

Six key areas in which the 14 countries have been pursuing confidence-building measures since the 2013 Almaty meeting are disaster management, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, trade and investment, regional infrastructure and education.

The process was supported by 17 other, predominantly Western, countries, and 12 international organisations.

The Pakistani government decided to attend the conference this year despite a deep freeze in ties with India.

Pakistan’s decision came even though New Delhi had scuttled the Saarc summit that Islamabad was to host in November 2016.

There is a suspense if India and Pakistan will use the avenue to engage in bilateral talks. However, spokesman for Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, has ruled it out.

“Talks cannot happen in a climate of continued terrorism. India will never accept continued terrorism as the new normal of the bilateral relationship,” Swarup said on Friday.