Pakistani, Iranian officials hold talks on gas pipeline

Petroleum ministry officials from Pakistan and Iran began talks in Pakistan's capital Monday on a multibillion dollar gas pipeline project opposed by Washington because of Tehran's nuclear program, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said. Tasnim Aslam said the Iranian deputy minister for petroleum, M.H. Nejad Hosseinian, had arrived in Islamabad for "technical talks" on the US$4 billion (Ђ3.35 billion) natural gas pipeline, which would also supply India through Pakistani territory.

The two-day talks came a day before Pakistani premier Shaukat Aziz was to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House in his first official visit to the United States. Aziz is expected to discuss a range of issues with Bush, including how to improve coordination between the two countries in the war on terror, the situation in Afghanistan, ties between Islamabad and New Delhi and Iran's nuclear program.

Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terro, has been holding talks with Iran on the pipeline project despite Washington's opposition and has vowed to go ahead with the project because it needs natural gas to meet the country's growing needs.

The pipeline discussions also come at a time when U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a low ebb after a U.S airstrike targeting an al-Qaida gathering in a remote Pakistani village. Thirteen civilians were killed, causing widespread outrage in the Islamic nation of 150 million. On Monday, Aslam insisted that her country would not bow to U.S. pressure to abandon the project.

"We are working in our national interest," said Aslam at a regular Foreign Ministry briefing. "We have repeatedly emphasized that we have energy requirements which are growing" with Pakistan's economy, she said. The talks Monday between Iran and Pakistan focused on the technical details of the pipeline, Aslam said. Work on the 2,800-kilometer (1,750-mile) pipeline could begin later this year, she said.

On Tehran's nuclear program, Aslam said Pakistan was "for a peaceful resolution of the issue." "We also acknowledge Iran's right to peaceful uses of nuclear technology under the nonproliferation treaty," she added, apparently referring to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran proposed the pipeline in 1996, but the project failed to take off mainly because of Indian concerns over security in Pakistan. Pakistan and India have a history of bitter relations centered on their main dispute over Kashmir. They have fought two wars over the divided region since their independence from British rule in 1947, but ties have improved in the past two years, reports the AP. N.U.