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New India PM invites Pakistan leader to inaugural

Wednesday - 5/21/2014, 10:20am  ET

File - In this Tuesday, May 20, 2014 file photo, India's Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi displays the letter from the Indian president inviting him to form the new government, outside the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India. A spokesman for Modi says he plans to invite the leader of rival Pakistan to his inauguration along with other South Asian leaders. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)

NIRMALA GEORGE
Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) -- India on Wednesday invited the leaders of rival Pakistan and other South Asian nations to the prime minister's inauguration, signaling what could be a first step in improving ties with its neighbors.

Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh on Wednesday sent the invitations to her counterparts in the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation for the leaders to attend the inaugural scheduled on Monday.

It's the first time India has invited leaders from its neighbors to attend the ceremony. External affairs ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said the ministry was awaiting responses.

The decision, among the first taken by Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi, could signal an intent to improve ties with Pakistan.

The hostility between the two South Asian neighbors dates to their independence from Britain in 1947. They have fought three wars, two of them over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which both claim as their own.

Modi led BJP to a landslide victory in the elections that concluded last week.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was among early leaders to call Modi to congratulate him, and he also invited Modi to visit Pakistan.

Relations between India and Pakistan were frozen after an attack on Mumbai in 2008 in which Pakistani terrorists killed 166 people. A mild thaw since then has helped trade and people-to-people links, but not much progress has been made to restore bilateral ties to normalcy.

During the election campaign, Modi had taken a tough line on Pakistan's role in sponsoring terror attacks in India. He accused the outgoing Congress party government of taking a soft stand against Pakistan for allowing Islamic terror groups to operate there and attack India.

But in recent days, and especially since his decisive victory, Modi has softened his stand somewhat. He has said that he would like to engage India's neighbors and have friendly relations with them.

Akbaruddin said the invitation was a "first step."

"Let's take one step at a time," he said.

No foreign leaders were invited to outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's inaugurations in 2004 and 2009.

The invitations were welcomed by political parties in India, especially those in India's portion of Kashmir.

Indian Kashmir's top elected official, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, hailed the invitations as an "excellent move" by Modi.

"Hope this is the beginning of sustained talks," Abdullah tweeted.

The opposition Congress Party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said his party welcomed the decision to invite regional leaders and would support any action that was beneficial for India.

Around 3,000 people -- political leaders and BJP supporters from across India-- are expected to attend the inauguration ceremony. The sprawling forecourt of the presidential palace in central Delhi was being readied Wednesday.


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