Free trade deal likely at Saarc Summit | india | Hindustan Times
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Free trade deal likely at Saarc Summit

A disaster preparedness centre in New Delhi was also on the cards following two natural calamities in the region.

india Updated: Nov 13, 2005 12:30 IST

The leaders of seven south Asian nations held a second and final day of summit talks on Sunday in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, expected to result in a deal on implementation of a regional free trade agreement.

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were also expected to agree on joint strategies for combating terrorism at the 13th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

The setting up of a disaster preparedness centre in the New Delhi was also to be endorsed following two devastating natural disasters in the region -- last year's killer tsunami and last month's Kashmir earthquake.

The Dhaka summit marks the 20th anniversary of SAARC, which was founded at a meeting in the Bangladesh capital in 1985.

But critics say squabbling between member nations has hampered SAARC's ability to fulfil its founding pledges of promoting economic cooperation and boosting the living standards of the region's 1.4 billion people.

South Asia is home to half the world's poor, with 40 per cent of them living on less than a dollar a day, according to the World Bank.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told the summit's inaugural session that it was time to recognise the impact of conflict on the region's economies.

"As we look at the twenty years of SAARC, we cannot escape the conclusion that South Asia lags behind its larger Asian neighbourhood in terms of economic and social advancement," he said.

"We have remained embroiled with conflict management. We need to move towards conflict resolution," he said.

For his part, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: "There is an imperative need to change and overcome the divisions of history and politics to forge a new architecture of mutually beneficial economic partnership."

The leaders of the two countries met on Saturday on the sidelines of the summit to discuss their long-standing dispute over Kashmir.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia urged all seven countries to strive to translate the SAARC ideals into reality.

"(We) must join the Asian mainstream of economic growth, prosperity and development," she added.

Earlier, senior officials said the seven countries had agreed to push ahead with implementation of a south Asia free trade deal, seen as the best hope of a better standard of living for millions of poor.

The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) was signed at the last SAARC summit in Islamabad in January 2004, with January 1, 2006 set as a deadline for implementation.

But negotiations have since stumbled over a sensitive list of products, rules of origin and a compensation mechanism for the least developed countries.

An Indian minister said on Thursday that officials would be instructed to resolve all outstanding issues by the end of November, to allow for timely implementation of the deal.

More than 30,000 troops have been deployed for the summit in Dhaka, where two series of small bomb blasts blamed on Islamic militants in August and October killed five people and wounded dozens.