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South Asian Countries Seek to Boost Trade Cooperation - 2004-07-20

Foreign ministers of seven South Asian nations have opened talks in Islamabad, focusing on increased trade and economic cooperation in one of the world's poorest regions. The two-day meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, known as SAARC, takes place at a time when relations between India and Pakistan are at their best in years.

Addressing the opening ceremony, Pakistani Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain said his country is committed to making the peace process with India a success to ensure political stability in South Asia. "I want to assure all members of the SAARC, and indeed the world, that Pakistan is committed to pursuing peace with India," he says.

Besides India and Pakistan, the SAARC members are Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The group was established in 1985 to promote economic cooperation in one of the world's poorest and most crowded regions. But military tensions between India and Pakistan blocked progress on most issues.

"Let us also resolve today that SAARC must become a symbol of peace and progress not only to ensure stability in South Asia, but also to win hearts and minds of the people of this region," says Mr. Hussain.

The divided region of Kashmir is the main cause of strained relations between India and Pakistan. They fought two wars over Kashmir and came close to another two-years ago. But since then, tensions have eased, and India and Pakistan have held several rounds of talks.

Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh is attending the SAARC meeting. He is to hold an informal meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, this week to discuss the peace process. They also will formally meet in India next month to review progress on the talks about contentious issues.

Later this week, Mr. Singh will meet President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Hussain to deliver, what he called, "a message of goodwill" from India.