ISLAMABAD // The British prime minister, David Cameron, urged Pakistan and India to build on recent, tentative steps toward better relations, saying yesterday the "time was now ripe" for both nations to put their history of war and mistrust behind them.
Mr Cameron's remarks were some of the first by an international leader in support of the recent thawing of ties between the two countries, whose relations are seen as important to long-term stability in Afghanistan once Western forces withdraw.
Building strong ties with Pakistan is a major foreign policy concern for the United Kingdom, given that the 2005 London Tube bombings and several other terror plots have been traced to extremists in its one million-strong Pakistani community. The nation also is part of the US-led coalition fighting the Taliban and al Qa'eda in Pakistan's neighbour, Afghanistan.
On a visit to India last year, Mr Cameron sparked a diplomatic dust-up with Pakistan by suggesting it exported terrorism.
Mr Cameron, on his first trip to Pakistan as prime minister, declined to answer questions on those remarks, but called for the two countries to make a "fresh start" in their relations. He stressed that the UK wanted strong ties between India and Pakistan.
In a speech at a university in the capital, Mr Cameron praised a recent meeting between Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in India, which took place around a cricket World Cup fixture between the two countries.
"The sight of Prime Minister Gilani and Prime Minister Singh sitting together at last week's cricket World Cup is a tremendous sign of hope for the future," he said to applause. "I believe the time is ripe for your countries to look even further beyond what divides you and embrace what unites you."
Analysts have said any talk of a breakthrough between the two nations, which have fought three wars and had frequent aborted diplomatic initiatives, was premature. India is bitterly opposed to any international efforts to mediate in the dispute, which has at its heart conflicting claims over the Kashmir region.
Better relations would mean Pakistan could free up its forces to fight the Taliban as well allow it to spend more money on development. The Pakistan army is widely seen as fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan against what it sees as Indian influence there, complicating US efforts there.
Pakistan's security establishment has long ties with militant networks it used as proxies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and faces frequent suspicion internationally that it is either tolerating some groups or even supporting them. Those accusations, which set off a defensive reaction in Islamabad, resonate in many Western nations because of the aid they are giving to Pakistan to prop up its economy.
Mr Cameron said in his speech "neither the Pakistan Army nor Nato forces must ever tolerate sanctuaries for people plotting violence" but otherwise did not mention the topic publicly.
His reference to Nato forces was apparently regarding Pakistani accusations that Nato and the US does not do enough in Afghanistan to crack down on militants moving into Pakistan. Most Western critics say the bulk of the militant traffic is coming the other way - from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
Mr Cameron's visit is one of relatively rare trips to Pakistan by Western heads of government, reflecting the country's precarious security situation and often uneasy international ties. Emphasising the visit's focus on security issues, Mr Cameron was joined by John Sawers, the head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, and the head of Britain's armed forces, General David Richards.