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India, Israel boost ties; Pakistan nervous
( 2003-09-09 13:40) (Agencies)

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon kicked off a ground-breaking visit to India Tuesday promising to build closer ties, a move that has raised concerns in neighboring Pakistan.

"We regard India as one of the most important countries in the world," Sharon said during an official welcome at the red sandstone presidential palace in New Delhi.

"I believe this visit, the first by an Israeli prime minister, will help us move forward," he said.

Pakistan has expressed concern over Sharon's visit, saying increased defense cooperation between its nuclear rival and Israel could destabilize the region.

Sharon's 150-strong delegation includes several defense industry executives and the warming ties are underpinned by booming sales of Israeli defense equipment of up to $2 billion a year.

This, combined with a growing India-Israel-U.S. axis, worries Islamabad and has stirred fears among India's minority Muslims, who are planning protests during Sharon's tour.

"If this axis is directed against Muslims all over the world and if this axis is directed against Pakistan and Pakistani Muslims, we would be most concerned as this would be a negative development," a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Islamabad, which does not recognize the Jewish state.

"The other dimension we are worried about is the growing Indo-Israeli defense cooperation. This has a destabilizing effect on the region and we are deeply concerned about it."

The visit is expected to yield defense deals including the sale of a more than $1 billion Israeli airborne early warning radar system. The three Phalcon radars New Delhi wants would put large parts of Pakistan under Indian surveillance.

Israeli officials accompanying Sharon said they did not expect the Phalcon deal to be signed during the four-day visit, but hoped it would be finalized in the next two weeks.

India also wants to buy the $2.5 billion anti-ballistic Arrow missile system from Israel, but has yet to win U.S. approval.

Washington sources cited concern that an Arrow-armed India could prod Pakistan into expanding its ballistic arsenal and create a repeat of last summer's nuclear stand-off in the subcontinent, when the two nations came close to a fourth war.

Sharon arrived late Monday night and was welcomed at Tuesday's ceremony by his Indian counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee, whom he invited to Israel.

Security was tight, with roadblocks and checkpoints across the city. Streets around the palace were closed to traffic.

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