ASEAN foreign ministers begin talks
Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Tuesday kicked off annual talks expected to be dominated by North Korea's nuclear programme, Myanmar's military regime and concerns in the Middle East.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who currently chairs the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), opened the one-day meeting held in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member ASEAN are due to discuss issues relating to increasing unity and cooperation among member countries.
The ministers released a joint statement at the beginning of their talks condemning the increasing violence in the Middle East and calling for a ceasefire in the Lebanon crisis.
"We are gravely concerned over the deteriorating situation and the escalation of violence in the Middle East," the statement said.
"We urge all parties to exercise utmost restraint, in particular to avoid additional casualties among innocent civilians ... and to refrain from acts that could further exacerbate the situation and worsen the humanitarian crisis."
ASEAN - which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - also plans to release a statement on fellow member Myanmar, which has been reluctant to show development in its claim of moving towards democracy.
The regional grouping, which has a policy of non-interference, has come under fierce criticism for not pushing Myanmar hard enough towards being transparent in its road to political reform.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, who led a group of ASEAN delegates to Myanmar in March, has expressed disappointment in Myanmar's ruling junta for apparently snubbing their regional neighbours and looking to the UN instead for engagement and assistance.
However, Syed Hamid reiterated that ASEAN would continue to welcome Myanmar in its grouping.
The ministerial meeting would be followed by the region's biggest security meeting - the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) - to be held on Thursday and Friday.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to attend the ARF meeting following her visit to the Middle East, which began on Monday.
Other foreign ministers due to attend the ARF include those from North Korea, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Japan, China and Australia.
Hopes are high that a resumption of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear programme will be held at the sidelines of the conference since all the negotiators involved - North and South Korea, the US, Japan, China and Russia - would be present.
However, Syed Hamid has said that North Korea had expressed its "unwillingness" to resume talks.