India's Modi on surprise Pakistan visit to meet PM

India's Modi on surprise Pakistan visit to meet PM
PHOTO: AFP

PAKISTAN - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at Lahore airport Friday to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian premier in more than 10 years.

The visit comes weeks after a breakthrough meeting between the countries' top diplomats in Islamabad, where the nuclear-armed rivals agreed to restart high-level peace talks.

State TV footage showed the Indian Air Force jumbo jet land at the Allama Iqbal International Airport where Sharif - who celebrated his birthday the same day - had flown in by helicopter moments earlier.

Sharif, flanked by his cabinet ministers, received Modi on the tarmac where military officers lined up along a red carpet.

Both leaders wore their national dresses and made their way to Sharif's helicopter, to be flown to the Pakistani prime minister's residence just south of the city, state media said.

Modi had earlier made the surprise announcement to visit Sharif on Twitter as he wound up his visit to Afghanistan with an address to the Afghan parliament.

"Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi," he said.

The last visit to Pakistan by an Indian prime minister was in 2004 by then leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is credited with bringing about a thaw in relations with Islamabad.

Modi and Sharif have had a stop-start diplomatic relationship since the Indian premier's surprise invite to Sharif for his inauguration last May.

Earlier this month, they agreed to resume high-level talks that would cover peace and security as well as territorial disputes, including over Kashmir - a Himalayan region that has seen India and Pakistan fight two wars since gaining their independence from Britain in 1947.

The move signalled a significant thaw in relations that have been particularly tense since the escalation of cross-border firing in Kashmir in 2014.

Delhi had suspended previous talks after Islamist gunmen attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008, killing 166 people. The attacks were later found to have been planned from Pakistan.

The countries agreed to resume the peace process in 2011 but tensions have spiked over the past two years, with cross-border shelling over the disputed border in Kashmir claiming dozens of lives since 2014.

A brief meeting between Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the UN climate change summit in Paris on November 30, followed by talks between the two countries' national security advisers in Bangkok, appeared to have broken the ice.

Earlier Friday, in his speech to the Afghan parliament, Modi urged closer co-operation between India, Pakistan and other neighbours for Afghanistan's progress.

"We know that Afghanistan's success will require the co-operation and support of each of its neighbours. And, all of us in the region - India, Pakistan, Iran and others - must unite ... behind this common purpose," Modi said.

Modi also made a veiled reference to Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan will succeed only when terrorism no longer flows across the border; when nurseries and sanctuaries of terrorism are shut; and, their patrons are no longer in business," Modi said.

India's main opposition party, Congress, was quick to criticise Modi's "irresponsible" decision.

"Our foreign policy is going from the sublime to the ridiculous," former union minister and Congress spokesman Manish Tewari told India's NDTV news channel.

"India-Pakistan diplomacy can't be done irresponsibly. We want to ask PM what has changed in the last few months that he went straight to Lahore from Kabul," Tewari said.

"This is going to blow up in the PM's face," he added.

Earlier this December, the national security advisers of both countries met in Bangkok. The development surprised many and it was announced with a joint press release only after the meeting was over.

India's foreign ministry at the time said the advisers discussed "peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues, including tranquillity along the LoC (line of control)," the de facto border in Kashmir.

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