PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari on Monday to step up his country’s fight against terrorism, during a visit overshadowed by a spat between Pakistan and Britain.
Western concerns over the reliability of Islamabad’s support in the conflict against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan have been heightened by the recent leak of classified U.S. military reports by the WikiLeaks website.
Comments by British Prime Minister David Cameron during a visit to India this week suggesting that Pakistan was not doing enough to fight terrorism prompted outrage in Islamabad, which summoned the Britain’s envoy on Monday.
However, French officials said Sarkozy was conciliatory in the talks with Zardari, which did not touch on either the leaked military documents, or Cameron’s comments.
“(Sarkozy) encouraged Pakistan to continue the efforts it has already made and to extend them further,” a senior French official told journalists after the meeting.
“Pakistan’s support is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan and it’s also in the interest of Pakistan that we succeed in Afghanistan,” the official said.
Forty-five French soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban.
France’s ties with Islamabad have been clouded by a French law last month banning Muslim women from wearing a veil covering their faces in public, which prompted protests by hundreds of Muslims in the Pakistani city of Karachi.
Zardari, who travels to Britain on Thursday for a long scheduled meeting with Cameron, said Sarkozy pledged support for Pakistan and would visit the country before the end of the year.
“France feels that Pakistan is a responsible partner with them in the world,” Zardari told reporters.
The WikiLeaks reports have detailed concerns that Pakistan’s intelligence service aided the Taliban insurgents that French forces are fighting in Afghanistan, even as the government in Islamabad was taking billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
French officials have said little in public about the WikiLeaks reports but the Foreign Ministry said Zardari’s visit would allow Paris to “tackle questions of security and the fight against terrorism, the regional situation, as well as economic cooperation” with Pakistan.
“Pakistan has two sides to it, which sometimes puts our troops in danger,” Christophe Jaffrelot, researcher at the Center for International Studies and Research at the Sciences Po institute in Paris, told France Info radio.
“Objectively, it is our ally. All our reinforcements pass through there but at the same time it uses all the resources from the West to conduct its own policies and back Islamic groups, including the Afghan Taliban.”
Franco-Pakistani relations have also been strained by a French police investigation into a 2002 bomb attack in Karachi which killed 11 French nationals.
A book published in May suggested the attacks were carried out by the Pakistani military after kickbacks to Pakistani officials were stopped.
In February, the Paris prosecutor said police had opened an inquiry into whether kickbacks from submarine sales to Pakistan had helped fund the 1995 presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur. His campaign manager was Sarkozy, who has dismissed the suggestion of any wrongdoing as a “fable.”
Zardari, who meets French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Tuesday, is likely to discuss nuclear power during his trip.
During a May 2009 visit to France, the Pakistani leader appeared to claim he had clinched a nuclear cooperation agreement similar to the one between the United States and India, but French officials later said they had only agreed to cooperate on nuclear safety.
Additional reporting by John Irish; Writing by Sophie Taylor; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jon Hemming