Pakistan leader confronts terror claim on Britain visit

3rd August 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Asif Ali Zardari vowed Tuesday to confront head-on British Prime Minister David Cameron's allegations of Pakistani support for terror, and warned coalition forces were losing the war in Afghanistan.

Zardari hit back after Cameron last week suggested elements in Pakistan supported "the export of terror" to its neighbours Afghanistan and India.

"The war against terrorism must unite us and not oppose us," Zardari told the French daily Le Monde, after he met French leaders ahead of a visit to Britain where he will see Cameron on Friday.

"I will explain face to face that it is my country that is paying the highest price in human life for this war," he said, in comments quoted in French by the newspaper.

Cameron, meanwhile, insisted that he did not regret his comments, saying he had given a "pretty clear and frank answer" to a straight question while visiting India last week. "I don't regret that at all," he told BBC radio.

Zardari has insisted Pakistan is committed to fighting militants in the region, including in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have waged a fierce insurgency since the US-led invasion drove them from power in 2003.

"The international community, to which Pakistan belongs, is losing the war against the Taliban. This is above all because we have lost the battle to win hearts and minds," he told Le Monde.

"I think they have no chance of regaining power, but their grip is strengthening," Zardari said of the hardline Islamist movement.

Relations between London and Islamabad soured last week when Cameron said: "We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror."

Britain is the second largest troop contributor to a NATO force in Afghanistan which faces daily attacks from Taliban fighters who intelligence analysts say draw operational support and funding from Pakistani agents.

The Pakistani leader is due to meet Cameron at the prime minister's country retreat outside London, despite some calls in Pakistan for him to cancel the visit in protest.

Zardari's office rejected this idea, arguing that the trip gives Pakistan a chance to make its case, according to a statement on Monday.

Following Cameron's remarks, it was now "all the more important that the president's visit to the UK went ahead as planned to raise this and other issues with the British prime minister," said the statement.

Cameron's remarks were made during a trade visit to India, Pakistan's neighbour and regional rival.

A spokesman for the prime minister stressed on Monday that Cameron had been referring to elements within the Pakistani state and not to the policies of the Islamabad government.

Zardari is not an all-powerful figure in Pakistan, where the military still retains massive political influence and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has more day-to-day authority over government affairs.

The terror row threatened to deepen Monday, when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi hauled in Britain's high commissioner -- the Commonwealth equivalent of an ambassador -- for a dressing-down over the Indian speech.

In contrast to the tensions surrounding his forthcoming visit to Britain, Zardari's visit to France appeared free of controversy.

After talks with Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace on Monday, the Pakistani leader vaunted Islamabad's relationship with France.

"France feels that Pakistan is a responsible partner with them in the world," Zardari told reporters, adding that Sarkozy had said he would visit Pakistan later in the year.

Before heading to Britain late Tuesday, Zardari met French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner for a working lunch expected to address European humanitarian aid in the wake of this week's deadly Pakistani floods.

In his talks with Sarkozy, Zardari "called for massive international assistance" to cope with the floods, the Pakistan statement said.

After his official schedule, Zardari was to make a brief private visit to Normandy in northern France where his family owns a chateau.

© 2010 AFP

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