UK vows closer support for Pakistan in Taliban fight

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain Wednesday promised closer cooperation with Pakistan on counter-terrorism and economic development to help fight Taliban militants.

After talks in London, President Asif Ali Zardari and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown fleshed out plans for a “strategic dialogue” that Brown had already mooted in a visit to Pakistan last month.

“We need a more comprehensive approach ... spanning economic development, strengthening our institutions (and) improved security through deeper cooperation on both counter-terrorism and other issues,” Brown told a joint news conference.

The United States and Britain have both adopted a new approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, focusing on tackling al Qaeda and Taliban militants on both sides of the border.

Pakistan’s army has launched an offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat valley after Washington accused the government of “abdicating” to militants.

Under the strategic dialogue, the British prime minister will meet annually with the president and prime minister of Pakistan to set objectives.

“We will focus mutual efforts to overcome threats from militancy, terrorism and extremism, to bring stability and to reduce poverty,” Zardari and Brown said in a joint statement.

Britain has announced it will channel 665 million pounds ($1 billion) of development aid to Pakistan in the next four years, half of it aimed at improving education and healthcare.

Brown said Britain will also give Pakistan 12 million pounds in humanitarian aid to help people fleeing the fighting in the Swat valley.

Britain will press for a “significantly enhanced trade relationship” between Pakistan and the European Union giving Pakistan greater access to EU markets, the joint statement said.

The EU and Pakistan plan to hold their first summit on June 17 in Brussels, a source at the EU’s Czech presidency said last week.

British officials say they have a self-interest in helping Pakistan fight militants because about two-thirds of terrorism plots uncovered in Britain have links to Pakistan.

Brown said Pakistan had committed to work for stability in Afghanistan, where more than 8,000 British troops are fighting the Taliban. Pakistan also recognized the importance of normalizing its relations with India, the joint statement said.

Zardari played down concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into militant hands, saying officials from other governments were “quite satisfied with the situation in Pakistan and with the command and control system that Pakistan already has.”

Zardari traveled to Washington last week for talks with U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

He dismissed as “incorrect” a survey by the BBC’s Urdu language service which estimated that only 38 percent of Pakistan’s northwest frontier province and surrounding areas was under full government control.

Editing by Jon Hemming