PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi became the first Indian leader to visit Pakistan in 28 years today, flying to Peshawar to pay last respects to a leader in the fight to end British colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent four decades ago.
An Indian military aircraft carrying Gandhi, his Italian-born wife, Sonia, and several Cabinet ministers, touched down in the capital of the North West Frontier Province, 100 miles west of Islamabad, at 12:49 p.m., airport authorities said.
Gandhi spent about two hours in Peshawar, paying his last respects to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and giving condolences to the dead tribal leader's family. Gandhi then returned to New Delhi to fly to Sweden for a six-nation nuclear disarmament conference.
Sources in the Awami National Party, the leftist political organization headed by Khan's son, Abdul Wali Khan, said Gandhi also had tea with officials of the provincial government before his departure. No official talks were held.
The Press Trust of India news agency said during the return flight, Gandhi issued a message thanking President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq for permitting his visit and saying, 'We are neighbors, bound together by many ties of history, geography and tradition. May peace, good will and good fellowship prevail among our people.'
Khan, who died early Wednesday at the age of 98 after a lengthy illness, was dubbed the 'Frontier Gandhi' for his leadership among the Pathan tribes along the northwestern Pakistan-Afghan border in the nonviolent movement for independence from British colonial rule.
Khan was widely admired in India because of his leadership in the independence struggle and his opposition to the partition of the subcontinent into Islamic Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India by the departing British colonial rulers.
Khan was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest honor.
Before leaving New Delhi, Gandhi declared a five-day period of mourning in India during which flags will be kept at half-staff, and ordered government offices closed on Friday.
Gandhi said in a statement, 'The last of the towering giants of our freedom struggle has gone.'
Last year, Gandhi dispatched an Indian air force plane to Peshawar and had Khan flown to New Delhi for medical treatment after the tribal leader suffered a stroke.
Gandhi is the first Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan since 1960, when his grandfather and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, went there to sign an agreement on the sharing of waters from the Indus River.
Six years later, the two neighbors were embroiled in the second of the three wars they have fought since achieving independence from Britain in 1947.
Relations between India and Pakistan have been strained since the partition of the subcontinent. While Nehru's successors were reluctant to pay official trips to Islamabad, several Pakistani government leaders traveled to India.
In 1972, Pakistan prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited India to sign the Simla Agreement, under which Pakistan and India exchanged prisoners captured in their 1971 war and pledged not to attack the other.
Zia, who seized power as army chief of staff in 1977 in a coup that toppled Bhutto, paid an brief official visit to New Delhi in December 1985 and made unofficial stops in 1983, 1984 and last year.
There was speculation last year that Gandhi would go to Islamabad as chairman of the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Instead, Gandhi dismissed the Foreign Ministry official who suggested the possibility of such a trip.