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South Asian Foreign Ministers Gather in Dhaka for Annual Summit


Foreign ministers from seven nations in South Asia will meet in the Bangladeshi capital Thursday to discuss greater regional cooperation. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, as it is known, was founded to help empower a region bogged down by poverty, historic animosities, and more recently, terrorism.

High on the agenda at the annual SAARC summit will be the South Asian Free Trade Agreement, SAFTA. The agreement, which is meant to go into effect in January, would make the world's largest free trade zone between the seven South Asian nations, in terms of population.

It is not clear whether the agreement will be finalized. Since it was conceived, member states have disagreed on several issues, including a product list for free trade and compensation to the region's poorer nations, which could suffer as a result of the deal.

But many say it is long overdue.

Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Morshed Khan points out that South Asia has one fifth of the global population, including a sizeable middle class. But there is little trade among SAARC member states, especially compared with economic blocs such as the Association of Southeast Asian nations.

"[The] European Union, they do intraregional trade - almost 63 to 65 percent," explained Morshed Khan. "ASEAN - they do about 28 to 29 percent. South Asia - being the largest regional cooperation - we only do approximately four percent of total trade intra-regionally. When there is a shortage of sugar in one country, our neighboring countries in the SAARC [may] have a surplus of sugar, but we don't buy it. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars more to buy it from a third source.

SAARC groups Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives.

Relations within the region have not always been smooth.

In the past, India and Pakistan's inability to resolve their decades-old dispute over Kashmir delayed plans for regional economic integration.

They are now engaged in a peace process, and have opened transport links and made it easier for people to travel between the two countries.

Now, terrorism across the entire region is one of the most prominent issues facing SAARC leaders.

Last month, three bombs killed nearly 60 people in the Indian capital New Delhi, in an attack many blame on Kashmiri militants supported by Pakistan - a charge that Pakistan denies. In August, Bangladesh was rocked by a coordinated attack involving more than 200 bombs set off across the country - an attack also blamed on Islamic extremists.

The Indian government, which faces opposition from a handful of militant groups, is concerned that some of the groups have won support or safe haven from its neighbors, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh, where they plan attacks on Indian soil.

Both nations deny providing any support to militant groups, and say they would like to work with the regional governments to tackle domestic terrorism problems of their own.

The SAARC foreign ministers meet Thursday and Friday. The seven SAARC heads of government meet Saturday and Sunday.

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