US, Pakistan to resume high-level negotiations
By DEB RIECHMANN
ISLAMABAD (AP) _ U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Pakistani counterpart, Sartaj Aziz, said Thursday that the two countries will resume high-level negotiations over security issues.
Kerry also said he had invited Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to come to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama.
“I’m pleased to announce that today, very quickly, we were able to agree to a resumption of the strategic dialogue in order to foster a deeper, broader and more comprehensive partnership between our countries,” Kerry said at a press conference with Aziz in Islamabad.
He said the talks will cover “all of the key issues between us, from border management to counterterrorism to promoting U.S. private investment and to Pakistan’s own journey to economic revitalization.”
The U.S. and Pakistan launched high-level talks on a wide swath of security and development programs in 2010. But the talks stalled in November 2011 after U.S. airstrikes on a Pakistani post on the Afghan border accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Even before that, the bilateral relationship was severely damaged by a variety of incidents, including a CIA contractor shooting to death two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore and the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
The resumption of the strategic dialogue indicates that the relationship between the two countries has improved since that low point. But there is still significant tension and mistrust between the two countries, especially regarding U.S. drone strikes and Pakistan’s alleged ties with Taliban militants using its territory to launch cross-border attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.
“It is also no secret that along this journey in the last few years we’ve experienced a few differences,” Kerry said. “I think we came here today, both the prime minister and myself, with a commitment that we cannot allow events that might divide us in a small way to distract from the common values and the common interests that unite us in big ways.”
Kerry was also asked about progress on a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan that would keep some U.S. forces in that country after 2014.
“I am personally confident that we will have an agreement, and the agreement will be timely,” he replied. “And I am confident that the president has ample space here within which to make any decisions he wants to make regarding future troop levels.”
While this is Kerry’s first visit to Islamabad as secretary of state, he has a long history of dealing with Pakistan as former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sharif described him as “a wonderful friend,” and Kerry said, “I have had the pleasure of visiting (Sharif’s) home and having a number of meals with him.”
Before heading into a closed-door meeting, Sharif asked Kerry about his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was hospitalized after a seizure last month.
“She’s doing better,” Kerry said.
Sharif came to power in an election that marked the first time in Pakistan that a civilian government completed its full five-year term and transferred power in democratic elections. The country has a history of civilian leaders being overthrown in military coups.
“This is a historic transition that just took place,” Kerry told U.S. Embassy employees. “Nobody should diminish it.”
Senior administration officials traveling with Kerry told reporters that while relations with Pakistan have grown touchy in recent years, there is the prospect of resetting those ties with Sharif’s government and working together on major issues _ counterterrorism, energy, regional stability, economic reforms, trade and investment. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss Kerry’s agenda.
The U.S. wants to help strengthen the role of the civilian government in Pakistan, where the military long has been dominant, and wants Sharif to tackle rising extremist attacks inside his country.
The prison break this week that freed hundreds of inmates raises serious questions about Pakistan’s ability to battle an insurgency that has raged for years and killed tens of thousands. Suspected Islamic militants killed at least 160 people during the new government’s first month in office. Sharif’s government has not articulated an alternate strategy.
The U.S. also wants Pakistan to pressure leaders of the Afghan Taliban to negotiate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, renounce violence and sever ties with al-Qaida.
Officials in neighboring Afghanistan are demanding that Pakistan dismantle extremists’ havens inside Pakistan and push the Taliban to join the peace process. Both the U.S. and Afghanistan say that if attacks are allowed to continue, the region will never become stable. Pakistani officials say they do not control the Taliban, but Karzai’s government isn’t convinced.
Drone strikes are another point of contention.
Washington says it needs to attack dangerous militants with drones because Pakistan’s government refuses to engage them militarily. Pakistan contends the drone strikes are a fresh violation of its sovereignty, and they have increased widespread anti-American sentiment in the country.
The United States has reduced the number of drone attacks against militants in Pakistan and limited strikes to top targets. These moves appear to have appeased Pakistan’s generals for now, U.S. officials said. But some officials worry about pushback from the new civilian officials, including Sharif, who wants the attacks ended.
There have been 16 drone strikes in Pakistan this year, compared with a peak of 122 in 2010, 73 in 2011 and 48 in 2012, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank.
After Kerry wraps up his meetings in Islamabad, he is scheduled to fly to London. The State Department said he will meet there with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to discuss Egypt, Syria and Middle East peace.
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report
By ANGUS SHAW
HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ The main challenger to Zimbabwe‘s longtime president, Robert Mugabe, said Thursday the election is “null and void” due to alleged violations in the voting process, but Mugabe has denied vote rigging.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said Wednesday’s election was heavily manipulated and did not meet regional or African election standards. A poll monitoring group that is not affiliated with the state also said the poll was compromised by a campaign to stop voters from casting ballots.
Mugabe has denied allegations of vote-rigging as a smear campaign by opponents. Final results are expected by Monday.
The elections posed one of the biggest challenges to Mugabe’s 33-year grip on power on this former British colony in southeast Africa.
“The shoddy manner in which it has been conducted and the consequent illegitimacy of the result will plunge this country into a serious crisis,” Tsvangirai warned.
The head of African Union observer mission, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, said late Wednesday that reports of irregularities “will be investigated but have not yet been substantiated.”
Mugabe’s party said Thursday it has withdrawn an unauthorized message on its Twitter feed claiming a resounding victory. The ZANU-PF party said it is awaiting the release of results by the state election commission, the only body allowed under the law to announce the outcome of massive voting on Wednesday.
Solomon Zwana, head of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, said Thursday it has found a “wide range of problems” in the election and that the poll was compromised by a campaign to stop voters from casting ballots. The monitoring group says as many as 1 million out of more than 6 million eligible voters were not on voters’ lists.
Zimbabweans voted in large numbers Wednesday in an election that was peaceful compared to disputed and violent polls in 2008. Thousands of voters lined up in Harare’s populous Mbare township but by Wednesday evening all the voters had been accommodated, said polling officials. “It’s a tremendous turnout,” said Magodelyo Yeukai, Mbare presiding officer.
Polling officials and party agents brought blankets to polling stations so that they could sleep next to the polling boxes to make sure they were not tampered with.
Mugabe, 89, has said he would step down if he loses.
Zimbabwe‘s shaky government was effectively dissolved on Wednesday. Mugabe and Tsvangirai have each predicted outright victory that would avoid the formation of another coalition.
Half the population of 12.9 million was eligible to vote. The state election body has said administrative, logistical and funding problems hindered voting arrangements, but said the problems have been fixed at the more than 9,000 polling stations nationwide.
Previous elections in 2002 and 2008 were marred by allegations of vote-rigging and political violence. Rights groups say there has been little overt violence this time but noted deep concerns over voters’ lists, the role of Mugabe’s loyalist police and military in the voting process and bias in the dominant state media and the sole national broadcaster controlled by Mugabe loyalists.
The International Crisis Group, a research organization, said it fears a return to a protracted political crisis and possibly extensive violence if the Zimbabwe poll is inconclusive and disputed.