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Saturday, February 3, 2001

Gujarat Earthquake: News from the Epicentre

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Gujarat gets Musharraf to dial PM in New Delhi

New Delhi, February 2: Pakistanís chief executive General Pervez Musharraf called up Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee this evening to express his ``sympathy'' over the Gujarat earthquake in the first-ever contact between the two since Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif in a coup and came to power on October 12, 1999.

The call bred speculation all day after being announced by none other than the PM himself at a public function this morning.

Vajpayee, in fact, had circumscribed the parameters of the conversation this morning much before it had even taken place. ``At this juncture it will be Gujarat,'' he told reporters. Just before he had pointed out though, that, ``It would be worthwhile if a way is found out of the suffering (of people) and contacts are re-established.''

Vajpayee also acknowledged the spirit in which Musharraf called him, saying that ``at the time of disaster people come together to share grief.''As quickly, however, he scotched speculation running rife over the possibility that both countries would quickly begin talks, pointing out that India had made it clear that dialogue could only start only after a conducive atmosphere was created.

``We have always favoured talks for which the right atmosphere has to be created. Violence, killings and terrorism must stop and the climate should be such that fruitful and meaningful parleys can take place,'' he added.

An official statement by the Ministry of External Affairs was suitably cryptic. ``General Pervez Musharraf called Prime Minister to convey his sympathy and the great loss of life caused by the earthquake in Gujarat. The Prime Minister thanked the Chief Executive for Pakistan's assistance. This gesture was greatly appreciated by the people of India.

``The Prime Minister assured the Chief Executive of India's continuing desire to build a good neighbourly relationship with Pakistan,'' the statement simply added.

Sources in the government said the fact of the telephone call itself between Musharraf and Vajpayee was noteworthy, but insisted as well that the conversation was limited to the Pakistani leader condoling the ``great loss of life'' in the Gujarat earthquake.

They pointed out that ``too much should not be read into the conversation'' and that it did not necessarily pave the way for a summit meeting between the two sides. If the PM had not accepted the call, the sources said, it would have been interpreted as churlishness on the part of New Delhi.

Musharraf's call comes in the wake of a Pakistani offer to send relief to Gujarat last week, an offer that was almost derailed by some misunderstanding about the character of the assistance sought by India. When that was sorted out, three Pakistani planes carrying tents, blankets and medicines flew into Ahmedabad a couple of days ago.

Two days ago, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh had also called Vajpayee offering to share Bangladesh's expertise in disaster management.

Earlier in the day as well, former US president Bill Clinton phoned Vajpayee to express his own grief at the Gujarat disaster, indicating bipartisan support in the US for providing relief assistance. Both leaders are said to have discussed the possibility of adopting villages in the region affected by the quake.

Copyright © 2001 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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