Top Pakistan foreign affairs official to visit India in December for regional conference

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's top foreign affairs official has said he plans to visit India next month for a regional conference, the first high-profile visit since tensions spiralled between the arch-rivals after a deadly attack on an Indian army base.

Mr Sartaj Aziz, advisor to Pakistan's prime minister Nawaz Sharif and de facto foreign minister, said he will attend the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan, to be hosted by India in December, "to defuse the tension".

"We want to prove that Pakistan is with the multilateral process by attending the Heart of Asia Conference as Afghanistan is our top priority," he told reporters in Islamabad on Tuesday (Nov 15).

It was not immediately clear if he would hold any bilateral talks with Indian officials during the visit.

The decision came after months of surging tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours sparked by a September attack on an Indian base in disputed Kashmir, which killed 19 soldiers and which New Delhi blames on Pakistan-based militants.

Tensions reached dangerous levels as India said it had retaliated to the raid by carrying out "surgical strikes" across the heavily militarised border, sparking a furious reaction from Islamabad, which denied the strikes took place.

There have since been repeated outbreaks of cross-border firing, with both sides reporting deaths and injuries, including of civilians.

India also sought to isolate Pakistan in the wake of the militant raid, pulling out of a key South Asian summit set to be held in Islamabad in November in a major snub.

Other countries scheduled to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit followed suit, eventually forcing Islamabad to cancel it entirely.

In his comments on Tuesday, televised by Pakistan's biggest private TV channel GEO, Mr Aziz condemned India for that decision.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Both claim the Himalayan territory in full and have fought two wars over the mountainous region.

The border skirmishes come against the backdrop of months of deadly protests against Indian rule of Kashmir, sparked by the killing of a popular rebel leader in July.

The Heart of Asia - Istanbul Process was established in 2011 as an initiative by Afghanistan and Turkey to foster regional cooperation and long-term peace in Afghanistan.