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11.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) for raising the subject of south Asia. I have just returned from a six-day visit to part of the region, so the debate is timely. Let me speak about the United Kingdom's relationship with Pakistan and India, about the relations between the two countries, and about Kashmir before moving to other regional issues.

The events of 11 September and coalition action in Afghanistan threw up new challenges for Pakistan. Domestic tensions increased. The appalling terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December raised the temperature further. President Musharraf was faced with difficult choices, and he made the right decisions. His wholehearted support for the international coalition against terrorism was courageous; so was his decision to tackle extremism at home.

Pakistan is a key member of the international coalition, and President Musharraf's efforts have helped to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship. That relationship is founded on a shared history and is bound together by strong links, not least by 750,000 British citizens of Pakistani origin.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's visits to Islamabad in October last year and January this year underline our commitment to supporting Pakistan over the long term. The Department for International Development has committed £11 million to Pakistan to help with the short-term humanitarian and broader economic impact of the Afghanistan crisis. In 2001, DFID's development assistance programme in Pakistan totalled £43 million, and it is now looking to increase that.

We are also reassured by President Musharraf's commitment to restore democratic government in Pakistan in line with the "road-map" proposals he announced on 14 August 2001. The restoration of the joint electoral system and more parliamentary seats for women are welcome developments. We have made it clear that the full participation of political parties is essential for free and fair elections in October. DFID is already engaged with the Pakistani electoral commission. We will continue to help in any way we can to ensure a smooth transition to democracy, strong democratic institutions and better human rights guarantees, especially for minorities in Pakistan.

Let me turn now to our relations with India, from where I have just returned. There is real strength and vitality in our bilateral relationship, which is confident and strong. Indian and British Ministers are in regular contact. The deep affection and fascination that the British people have always had for India remains. History, culture and shared interests and values bind us together. There is a genuine sense of shared purpose. We share a global vision and democratic values.

The Prime Minister paid a very successful visit to India in January this year. The vision of both Prime Ministers was set out in the New Delhi declaration of January 2002. We both want to play a positive and proactive role in international affairs. We have a mutual interest in co-operation on the world stage. We both play leading roles in the United Nations and the Commonwealth.

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The partnership stretches from working to combat international terrorism, Afghanistan and peacekeeping, and on through to trade, investment, the environment, information technology, reforming international finance, development, science, technology and combating international crime.

Trade and investment is one of the great success stories of the Indo-British partnership. Bilateral trade between our countries increased by 20 per cent. last year to nearly £5 billion. UK development aid will treble over the forthcoming years.

The terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament outraged world opinion. We in Britain were deeply shocked by the attack on the very centre of Indian democracy. Once again, the destructive influence of terrorism on regional stability has been highlighted. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the resulting military mobilisation on both sides of the border is deeply worrying. Britain urges both India and Pakistan to exercise restraint. We are in close and constant contact with both Governments. The aftermath of 11 September has created a new dynamic in south Asia that we think will help us, and other friends of India and Pakistan, to encourage both countries to find lasting solutions.

Both sides will need to show flexibility and understanding. We were struck by President Musharraf's bold speech of 12 January in which he condemned all forms of sectarianism and religious hatred and made it quite clear that terrorism in the name of Kashmir would not be tolerated. As a friend of Pakistan, we will continue to encourage him to pursue this vision of a modern, tolerant and stable Pakistan; we hope others will do the same.

Terrorism and support for terrorist acts such as those that took place on 1 October in Srinagar and 13 December in Delhi must cease. There must be meaningful dialogue on the issues—all the issues—between India and Pakistan.

It is widely accepted that the long-standing tension between India and Pakistan is one of the most pressing regional security problems. The current military mobilisation on both sides of the border underlines the risks inherent in the continuing stalemate over Kashmir—risks that are all the more serious because of their nuclear dimension.

We remain concerned about the suffering of the ordinary people in Kashmir and militant attacks on civilians and the Indian security forces. Continuing violence in Kashmir has done nothing, and can do nothing, to promote a durable solution. An end to the support that the militants receive from outside Kashmir would greatly assist the search for a solution, as would early steps to improve the human rights performance of the Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. We recognise and welcome the action already taken by the Indian authorities to address the concerns, but we will continue to press them to bring wrongdoers to justice and allow international organisations access to Jammu and Kashmir.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of mediation. Mediation can and does work in some situations, but only when the principals accept it. We and others have a role to play—to press the parties themselves to find a solution

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with which they can both live. We firmly believe, however, that any solution, if it is to carry with it the people living in Kashmir, must take account of their views; only then will it be accepted as a just and lasting solution.

Britain is playing a leading role in Afghanistan, as my hon. Friend rightly said. Almost an entire generation of Afghans have known nothing but war, poverty, insecurity, terrorism, drugs and refugee movements. Millions of Afghans have suffered appalling privations, but their resilience has been extraordinary, and the Government are determined to help make the future better than the past.

We have a responsibility to help, but we also have a direct national interest in doing so. In the first place, we want the Bonn agreement to succeed. The early signs have been extremely encouraging. In particular, we welcome the way in which Chairman Karzai and his fellow interim Ministers are working energetically to provide effective administration. Over time, the Interim Administration should become increasingly broad-based and representative.

Secondly, we are trying to combat poverty. At the Tokyo conference, we announced an additional pledge of £200 million over five years on top of our earlier commitment of £60 million for humanitarian and emergency aid.

Thirdly, there is the problem of insecurity, which my hon. Friend highlighted extremely well. It is perhaps the most pressing and immediate problem. As is well known, the United Kingdom is leading the International Security and Assistance Force, which comprises more than 4,000 troops from 18 contributor nations, but what is less well known is that we have also begun training the new national army of Afghanistan, and provided communications equipment for use by the Kabul police.

Finally, we are considering ways of enabling Afghan refugees now living in Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere, as well as internally displaced persons, to return to their homes.

My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the extremely worrying situation in Nepal, which I also visited last week. Britain and Nepal have extremely long-standing ties. The Gurkha relationship, and in particular the exceptionally high standing in which these brave Nepalese soldiers are held in the United Kingdom, is an important mainstay.

Britain supports the democratically elected Government of Nepal and recognises the right and obligation of that Government to provide security for their people. We want to offer our full support to the Government of Nepal in their attempts to find a resolution to the Maoist insurgency, and we are actively considering extra ways in which we can do that. The European Union has condemned the Maoist attacks, which brought a violent return to conflict in Nepal, and expressed concern about possible abuses of human rights in the country, including quite barbaric acts by the insurgents.

We believe that the Nepalese Government went to great lengths to ensure a conducive atmosphere for the three rounds of peace talks last year. We would encourage both sides to make every effort to achieve a solution that will result in the renunciation of violence and bring the Maoists back into the political mainstream; only then will Nepal achieve the prosperity that its people need and deserve.

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Finally, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan for drawing attention to the welcome news, emerging from Sri Lanka in the last week, that the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have signed a formal agreement on the cessation of hostilities. We applaud the efforts of all the parties responsible for bringing that about. It is vital that they now build on this agreement and continue to make

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progress towards a negotiated settlement that meets the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka. We fully support the Norwegian facilitation process, and we have made it clear to all concerned that the UK stands ready to help, if asked.

Question put and agreed to.

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