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Afghanistan to be Offered SAARC Membership

  • Patricia Nunan

Officials attending the summit of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, say they are optimistic they will reach a number of new agreements on improving regional relations, including expanding the group itself. The summit, in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, is in its second and final day.

India's foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, says SAARC members are working out details to allow China to become an observer of the regional forum and to invite Afghanistan to be its newest member.

"That Afghanistan is being invited as the 8th member of SAARC - I think that would be a very positive message to go out from this summit," he said.

SAARC groups India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan. It was formed to integrate regional economies to increase trade and improve living standards.

Delegates also say that on Sunday they want to finalize details on SAFTA - the South Asia Free Trade Agreement, so that it can begin going into effect on January 1st. The goal is to make a regional trading bloc to eventually rival the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Mr. Saran says other new agreements are also likely to be approved as the national leaders wrap up their two-day meeting in Dhaka.

Officials would like to lower visa requirements for residents to travel among SAARC member states, including journalists. India also suggested a new open skies deal to increase air travel across the region. The Indian delegation also proposed creating a regional food bank to help member states respond to humanitarian crises.

In addition, the creation of a regional disaster management center looks set to be approved. Tens of thousands of people died and millions were left homeless across the region after December's Indian Ocean tsunami and the October earthquake in Kashmir.

In the past, progress at SAARC summits was hampered by tensions between India and Pakistan - historic rivals who are now engaged in peace talks. The two nations held a bilateral meeting Saturday, but there were no new peace initiatives announced.

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