ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari will visit Britain this week for talks overshadowed by a row over remarks by Prime Minister David Cameron suggesting Islamabad was not doing enough to fight terrorism.
Pakistan’s spy chief, who had been due to visit London on Monday for talks on counter-terrorism, cancelled his trip in protest at Cameron’s remarks, a spokesman for the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency said on Saturday.
Cameron, speaking in Pakistan’s rival India on Wednesday, told Islamabad that it must not become a base for militants and “promote the export of terror” across the globe, raising the ire of several officials and many people in the key U.S. ally.
Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Zardari should cancel his visit to Britain.
“I think it’s inappropriate and an insult to the sentiments of the Pakistani people,” he told reporters during a visit to flood-hit areas in the northwest.
Images of protesters in Karachi burning an effigy of Cameron have received widespread television coverage in Britain and dominated the front page of at least one newspaper.
Pakistan’s envoy to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, said he had personally dissuaded Britons of Pakistani descent from demonstrating against Cameron’s remarks before Zardari’s visit.
The Pakistani leader travels to London from Paris, where he flew to on Sunday for talks with President Nicholas Sarkozy on security and economic issues as part of a three-day visit.
Zardari is expected to meet Cameron on Friday at the British prime minister’s official country residence, Chequers, before addressing a rally of political supporters among Britain’s million-strong Pakistani community on Saturday.
Pakistani Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, who is already in London, said Zardari would focus on informing Cameron about Pakistan’s fight against “violent extremism,” and sought to play down the row’s impact on British-Pakistan relations.
“If we go back into history, our relations with the UK are very good. And we want to keep up those relations, strengthen those relations,” Kaira told reporters on Saturday.
“This statement from the prime minister of the UK is contrary to the facts and is not in good taste, but our reasonable reaction is we will discuss this matter at the highest level of the leadership and give them the facts.”
Pakistan’s help is crucial for U.S. and Western efforts to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan.
Pakistan has launched a large military offensive against al Qaeda and Taliban militants in its northwestern provinces bordering Afghanistan, but recent criticism of its alleged ties to the insurgents have put the government on edge.
Cameron’s remarks came days after classified U.S. military reports published on the WikiLeaks website detailed concerns that the ISI had aided the Taliban while Pakistan’s government was taking billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a recent visit to Pakistan, said she believed al Qaeda leaders were still hiding in Pakistan and that some elements in the Pakistani government knew where they were.
India accuses Pakistan of supporting militants operating on its soil and peace talks between the two countries have been deadlocked since 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
In London, David Miliband, foreign minister in the previous Labour administration, criticised Cameron’s remarks about Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude towards Islamist extremism.
“Like a cuttlefish squirting out ink, his words were copious and created a mess... the prime minister’s (comments) have been destructive,” Miliband wrote in an opinion piece in Britain’s Independent on Sunday newspaper.
Miliband, who is standing for the leadership of the Labour Party, also said it was “an open secret” over the past 20 years that militant groups had had links into parts of the Pakistani state, despite Pakistan itself being a victim of terrorism too.
Pakistan’s economic losses have been estimated by the government at more than $68 billion since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and toppling of the Taliban government in 2001.
Writing by Miral Fahmy; Additional reporting by David Milliken in London, James Regan in Paris and Augustine Anthony in Islamabad; editing by Jon Boyle