By Ayaz Gul, VOA
ISLAMABAD - India and Pakistan have signed a long-awaited natural gas deal with the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan, paving the way for the construction of a multi-billion dollar pipeline through Afghanistan.
Top Indian and Pakistani officials traveled to Turkmenistan to formalize the natural gas sales and purchase agreements on Wednesday.
Under the agreements, Turkmenistan, with the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves, will supply 90 million cubic meters of natural gas a day through a proposed pipeline connecting the Central Asian state with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
The bulk of the exported natural gas will help satisfy growing energy demands in India and Pakistan, where energy needs are likely to double by 2030. The remainder of the gas will go to Afghanistan to help alleviate chronic power shortages in the war-ravaged nation.
The Asian Development Bank is said to have played a leading role over the past decade in coordinating and facilitating the four-nation talks on the project. Top officials at the ADB said Wednesday's deal marks an unprecedented new chapter in regional relations.
"I think it is an excellent development. It is a win-win situation for everybody," said Warner Liepach, the bank's country director for Pakistan. "It will bring prosperity to the region; it makes the people talk to each other. So we are very happy, very upbeat about this."
According to Pakistani Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, the agreement on the TAPI [Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India] pipeline is a dream come true for Pakistan, and will help promote regional peace and cooperation.
"TAPI was originally negotiated by Pakistan, so we welcome it," he said. "Of course, this will be a peace pipeline because it will enhance the cooperation between India and Pakistan as well, because we will jointly share this pipeline."
Observers believe rapidly improving trade and economic relations between India and Pakistan have played a key role in bringing the TAPI project closer to becoming a reality.
Swaran Singh, professor of international relations at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that, despite diplomatic ups and downs among the four countries, the pipeline agreement is a reflection of their shared understanding that energy is key to their peaceful development.
"Particularly, three countries share a rather complex relationship - Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. So for these three countries, this pipeline is more than just energy," he said. "It is a reflection of their mutual understanding that their prosperity lies in working together rather than working against each other or working independent of each other."
The idea for an 1,800-kilometer pipeline connecting the four nations was first put forward in the early 1990s, but civil war in Afghanistan prevented its realization. The project is expected to be completed within five years, at an estimated cost of $7.6 billion.
Pakistan said it is also making parallel efforts to import natural gas from neighboring Iran through a bilateral pipeline project. The United States, which is trying to isolate Iran internationally over Tehran's controversial nuclear program, opposes the project.
But Pakistan's Petroleum Minister Asim Hussain again dismissed U.S. demands that his country abandon the Iranian gas deal, describing the U.S. pressure as irrelevant and saying Pakistan will pursue every available option to meet its growing energy needs.
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