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Leaders' Meeting Boosts India-Pakistan Relations


A brief encounter between two leaders has raised hope for better relations between India and Pakistan. India's prime minister hosted Pakistan's president and accepted a return invitation to travel to Pakistan. We talk here of two nuclear-armed rivals whose relations were even worse than usual, after Pakistani militants attacked Mumbai in 2008. And the meeting came as disaster struck Pakistani troops facing Indian soldiers in the Himalayas.

NPR's Julie McCarthy is going to talk us through all this. Hi, Julie.


INSKEEP: Unbelievable incident over the weekend. Pakistani soldiers were buried by an avalanche. Is that correct, about 130 of them?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, a lot of them. This would be one for the record books for Pakistan. And as far as the fate of those soldiers is concerned, the word out of the Pakistan army spokesman is that anyone who survived would be lucky. The army sources were describing this as a massive avalanche in the Himalayas. It swept over a very large area, about a half a mile wide, 60 feet deep.

And in the best of circumstances, Steve, this is a difficult place to reach. It's at an altitude of 15,000 feet, so you can imagine the atrocious weather that whips up there. The temperatures plunged to 94 degrees below zero. They're radical conditions to have to contend with.

And while both countries have troops amassed along what's called the line of control there, along the long glacier Siachen border, it is a place that has seen a quiet in fighting. What kills the troops there today are all these inhospitable conditions, and that's what they're battling now.

INSKEEP: Although this will point out for outsiders, surely, and perhaps some in India and Pakistan, the futility of this conflict, the fact that they've contended for years over a glacier. Does this still make sense?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, that is a question that is definitely being asked today after this disaster. They are extremely costly for both sides to maintain these kind of outposts in just these horrendous conditions in terms of treasure in the lives of the soldiers. And we're being told that no one has been recovered yet, and that it will be days before that happens. The avalanche is that big and it takes that much time to cut into it.

A team of American specialists has arrived in Pakistan to provide technical assistance. Offers of assistance have come from other countries, including India, which is significant. The army says it's not clear if anyone is still alive 48 hours into the ordeal. Typically you have to be taken out within 15 to 20 minutes of an avalanche to survive. So the fear is this could be shaping up to be the worst disaster to befall the Pakistan military in those icy installations.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi. And Julie, as that was happening, of course, over the weekend, there was this meeting between the leader of Pakistan and the leader of India.

MCCARTHY: That's right. And what you got with it was special coverage wall to wall, including things like what was on the menu. Nothing was left undebated here, when at the heart of this is something very fundamental. And people know it. The relationship between Pakistan and India holds the key to peace and stability in South Asia. And so this visit, and all these visits, are freighted with all sorts of meaning.

This was a visit by a Pakistani head of state, the first in seven years, and it was watched with enthusiasm - never mind that no great declarations were made or agreements signed. The Americans were intensely watching it. The Chinese welcomed Zardari's visit to India, saying that better ties between what they call the two nuclear-armed heavyweight neighbors will bring regional stability. And both men came out and said they wanted to work towards normalized relations, better trade, more commerce.

And Monmohan Singh, who has not visited Pakistan yet, finally said he'd be happy to visit there at an appropriate time that's mutually convenient. Well, you might call that vague, but at least it wasn't encumbered with the usual conditions that Monmahan Singh has put on such visits before.

INSKEEP: So Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari visits India's prime minister, but did they talk about that 2008 attack on Mumbai?

MCCARTHY: Well, yes, they did, and they do every time the Pakistanis and Indians meet. It does remain the 800-pound gorilla in the room four years later, and it governs this relationship, and I think will continue to do that going forward. And if there is not progress, you could perhaps see Mr. Singh not going to Pakistan.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi. Julie, thanks.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.