Pakistani leader in rare visit to NATO, landmark EU summit
Wed, Jun 17, 2009

BRUSSELS, June 17, 2009 (AFP) - Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari makes a rare visit to NATO Wednesday and holds a landmark summit with top European Union officials in Brussels focused on Islamabad's fight against the Taliban.

As Pakistani forces prepare a major offensive against the Taliban in an area bordering Afghanistan, Zardari will address NATO ambassadors meeting in a North Atlantic Council.

NATO is struggling to control a Taliban-led insurgency that is undermining its biggest and most ambitious operation ever, aimed at fostering democracy and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

The insurgents, backed by Al Qaeda and criminal gangs, have been using Pakistan's lawless tribal areas as a base, resulting in cross-border shooting involving NATO-led forces or US operated drone strikes.

Zardari's visit and the Pakistani offensive comes amid calls for the European Union and others to do more to help around two million people who have fled the fighting in the northwest tribal belt.

Fears are growing of a broadening humanitarian crisis as fighting spreads.

British-based aid organisation Oxfam called it "the world's biggest and fastest growing human displacement in over a decade" and said funds to help the displaced remained inadequate.

"The total figure of internally displaced persons is likely to rise as military operations extend into other areas," it said in a statement Tuesday.

Oxfam targeted EU for its "feeble response to the humanitarian crisis."

With Pakistan now at the epicentre of efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, the EU has come under increasing pressure to step forward with aid and trade to bolster Pakistan's shaky government.

Indeed deepening trade links and the fight against "terrorism" will top the agenda of the first-ever EU-Pakistan summit later Wednesday, to be chaired by Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.

In a draft declaration, the two agree to launch "strategic dialogue" on "development, education, science and technology, security, counter-terrorism, strengthening democracy, human rights and enhancing trade."

The EU would also hail Islamabad's efforts to tackle terrorism and recognise "the sacrifice which the Pakistani people and armed forces are making notably during ongoing operations in North West Frontier Province."

In a separate text, EU leaders at a summit on Thursday will voice confidence that "a successful outcome would greatly strengthen the democratically elected government in achieving its political and development objectives".

Beyond political support, Europe is also set to offer Wednesday more relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance in the Swat valley, according to the draft text seen by AFP.

Klaus and Zardari are also set to agree to boost commercial ties, with the ultimate goal being a free trade agreement.

The EU will "explore" how Pakistan could benefit from its preferential tariff regime, which affords customs privileges in return for respecting principles in the areas of workers' rights and the environment.

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