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Britain’s Blair, Pakistan’s Musharraf Discuss Coalition

Musharraf reaffirmed his country’s support for an international coalition to fight terrorism, and pledged its assistance “in the field of information exchange and intelligence.”

Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, a Musharraf spokesman, said it was unlikely that the two leaders discussed a military agenda, or potential targets in Afghanistan.

Following the meeting, Blair announced $40 million in aid to help Pakistan deal with the likely influx of Afghan refugees.

He stressed any military action against the Taliban would “not [be] directed against the Afghan people, who are not our enemy.”

Earlier this week, President Bush announced a $320 million aid package for Afghans to relieve a growing humanitarian crisis in the region.

Blair praised Pakistan for its decision to support the U.S. in its efforts against terrorism.

“The support of Pakistan is vital,” he told reporters. “If they are not supporting the Taliban, that is a huge problem for the Taliban.

“All the pieces [are] coming together,” Blair said. “If you have the military preparations in hand, if you have got the diplomatic side working, if you have the right humanitarian preparations in place, the Taliban are faced with a situation in which they are surrounded by countries who all want the same thing.”

The two leaders agreed the Taliban government in Afghanistan should be replaced by a government that is “broad based, with every key ethnic group being represented,” Blair told reporters.

For his part, Musharraf said Pakistan had determined there was credible and sufficient evidence linking bin Laden’s al-Qaida network to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I personally…and my government feels that there is evidence leading to an association between this terrorist act and Osama bin Laden,” he told reporters.

Facing pressure from many internal pro-Taliban groups, Musharraf said he expects his country’s assistance with the coalition against bin Laden would ultimately improve Pakistan’s relations with other nations.

“Pakistan certainly looks forward to much healthier, much closer, much better relations with the United Kingdom in the future,” he said.

But Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, said Blair’s visit was meant “to encourage war.”

“We have no message for him,” he told Reuters, referring to Blair. “Had he come for negotiations and talks, then we would have liked to have said something.”

Zaeef said he expected a war with the U.S. because “Bush is threatening.”

Pakistan is now the sole nation with diplomatic ties to the Taliban, since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates severed their association with the regime last month.

Former Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah, an opponent of the Taliban regime, is expected to send envoys to meet with Musharraf about the political future of Afghanistan.

Blair’s visit is only the second to Pakistan by a Western leader since the October 1999 army coup in which Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Former President Clinton stopped briefly in Islamabad last March.

World leaders have sanctioned and shunned Pakistan since it conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The U.S. agreed to lift those sanctions after Pakistan pledged its support.

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