Islamabad: Ahead of his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif has said his government wants strong relations with India and that all issues including "flash point" Kashmir have to be settled through dialogue.

He said both countries have been spending heavily on defence which should have ordinarily been spent on social sectors. "I feel very proud that I'm the one who brought the two countries closer together. The Indian prime minister (AB Vajpayee) embarked on a visit to Pakistan (in 1999), on his first-ever state visit. We are now picking up the threads from where we left off in 1999," Sharif said in an interview.

Sharif, who is scheduled to meet Singh in New York on Sunday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, said he had made his policy very clear, even before the elections. "I said that we stand for strong relations with India, we stand for peaceful resolution of all our problems with India, including Kashmir. And I said that I'll extend my hand of friendship to India if we get elected," he said.

Sharif, who is currently in the US for the UN General Assembly, said his PML-N party got a very clear majority in the elections and "So I think people have really endorsed our policy of building bridges with India".

Sharif, a strong proponent of better ties with India, said Pakistan is keen to promote its trade with India. "We want economic ties getting stronger with India. Our business community is keen to reach out to their Indian counterparts," he said. Sharif added, "And of course, we want to resolve the issue of Kashmir, which is a flash point in our relations."

The Pakistan Prime Minister referred to the resolution of the Security Council calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir. "We have already agreed that we should be resolving the issue of Kashmir, through peaceful means, through negotiations and talks, by sitting across the table," he said. He added that the issue of Siachen is very important for both countries.

"Both countries' armies are sitting at an altitude of more than 22,000 feet. I don't know what sense it makes in this modern age that armies are sitting at over 22,000 feet. I think we have to resolve this issue as well," he said. “And then, there is Sir Creek issue that still needs to be resolved," he said. Sharif noted that both countries have been spending a lot of money building up their defence.

"We've been spending this precious money, resources we have, which should have ordinarily been spent on social sectors have been diverted to buy the F-16s, to buying frigates, tanks, expensive submarines. And the same has been happening on the Indian side. In fact, there has been a race, between Pakistan and India. India, since it's a bigger country, has more resources. If India buys frigates, then of course we have to look for something to counter them. The gap between India and Pakistan is getting wider and wider, because India is spending far more resources on its defence than Pakistan," he said.

 Sharif said there has to be some understanding between the two countries, "that let's sit down and resolve our problems and divert these resources towards social sectors."

In the interview, Sharif spoke about various issues including drones, ties with US, among others. Asked about the appointment of the new army chief, he said, "We haven't really discussed this matter yet, because there's still time. I'll handle it. I have yet to take a look at that."

Asked about the possibility of reappointing Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as the army chief, he said, "I'm not saying yes or no. Of course, we will be taking a decision on this issue soon."

(Agencies)

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