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July 23, 2017

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Modi swearing-in to host Pakistan leader

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif will attend Indian prime minister-elect Narendra Modi's inauguration on Monday, his office said, in an unprecedented diplomatic move aimed at mending strained ties between the nuclear-armed rivals.

The Pakistani PM's attendance will be a first in the history of the South Asian neighbors, which have fought three wars since independence in 1947 and remain bitterly divided over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Like all other heads of government from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which includes Pakistan, Sharif had also been formally invited by India this week.

"Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to visit India and attend the swearing-in of ... Modi," his spokesman told AFP on Saturday.

"He will spend a night in India," the spokesman added.

Modi will take the oath as prime minister on Monday, 10 days after his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scored a landslide victory, securing the first majority by a single party in 30 years.

"It's very good news that Nawaz Sharif has accepted Mr Modi's invitation," BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar told reporters in New Delhi. "It will mark a new beginning in our ties."

Sharif, who is himself a center-right leader, has hailed Modi's "impressive victory" and many diplomats hope the two men can thaw ties between the neighbors.

Sharif has cited his working relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's last prime minister with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a reason for optimism, according to diplomatic sources.

It was during Sharif's second term in 1999 that Vajpayee rode a bus to Lahore to sign a peace accord, raising the prospect for normalization between the two-nuclear armed neighbors that have fought three wars.

Three months later, the countries embarked on the Kargil conflict in the Himalayan region of Kashmir — though Sharif has blamed his then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf who went on to overthrow him in a coup, for provoking the fighting without his knowledge.

"Vajpayee had said you can choose your friends but you can't choose your neighbors. Mr Modi is following just that" principle by extending an invitation to Sharif, Javadekar said.

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