By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent
NEW YORK, Sept 26 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday she saw better rapport between Pakistan and Afghanistan that would help international efforts to stabilize a region that has been a hotbed of terrorism.
"There’s a new spirit between President Zardari and President Karzai," Rice told Reuters in an interview after the launch of a multilateral "Friends of Pakistan" group to help Islamabad tackle its massive economic and security problems.
Rice held talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai — U.S.-allied countries whose disputes have hampered the campaign against terrorism.
"They both speak very warmly of one another. They have some ideas about how to bring some political reconciliation of various tribals on both sides of the border and how to use this to bring greater stability," Rice said of the two leaders.
"The president of Pakistan seems quite committed and resolute about resolving the multiple challenges," she said.
Zardari, widower of assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was elected president earlier this month, replacing military strongman Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf often publicly traded blame with Karzai over cross-border attacks and infiltrations, to great U.S. consternation.
A new complication in cross-border tensions emerged on Thursday when U.S. and Pakistani ground forces exchanged fire across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. U.S. and Pakistani officials clashed over whether American helicopters had entered Pakistan.
‘FRIENDS OF PAKISTAN’
That incident followed a U.S. campaign of attacks on militant targets inside Pakistan, including a Sept. 3 commando raid on a village compound in South Waziristan.
"We cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends," said Zardari in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.
Rice played down the dispute, and said Washington would help meet Zardari’s appeals for international support for Pakistan’s strategy to deliver economic development and alleviate food and energy shortfalls.
"The United States is prepared to look at the significant aid programs that we have to see if we can bring them more into conformity with some of the direction initiatives that (Zardari) himself is developing," she said.
On Friday, Rice and Zardari joined the foreign ministers of Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well as European Union and U.N. representatives, to launch the Friends of Pakistan group.
The group pledged to address Pakistan’s energy shortfall, help build its democratic institutions and promote stability and development in Pakistan, including the tribal border areas that have been a haven for militants, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
"The Group committed to work with the Government of Pakistan to develop an over-arching Pakistani-led strategy and to provide technical assistance for this," said the statement.
Rice said Washington would work with Islamabad, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to find ways to support Pakistan as it struggles with a surge in its current account deficit, a slide in the rupee and a sharp drop in foreign currency reserves. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)