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South Asian Leaders Say Improved Economic Ties Long Overdue

The leaders of seven South Asian nations have wrapped up formal discussions on the first day of the SAARC summit - the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The leaders are discussing several proposed initiatives for improved regional economic ties, ways to respond to humanitarian crises and to combat terrorism.

The first day of the economic summit saw the seven South Asian leaders in agreement on a key point, the goal of enhancing regional trade is long overdue.

Among the many initiatives discussed, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proposed an open skies deal to increase air services across the region.

"India is prepared to offer to all SAARC neighbors, on a reciprocal basis and without prejudice to existing rights, the facility of daily air services," he said.

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

It remains unclear whether leaders will meet their goal Sunday of finalizing the South Asia Free Trade Agreement, SAFTA, to help create an economic bloc to rival the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Analysts say that historic animosities between various regional rivals have hindered efforts to reach that goal.

In opening speeches Saturday, several leaders acknowledged they had expected more progress from the regional forum, which was originally formed 20 years ago.

"Regional economic cooperation in South Asia has fallen far short of our expectations and the dreams of our founding fathers," said Indian Prime Minister Singh. "It remains far behind more successful examples in both Asia and other regions of the world. I sincerely hope that SAFTA comes into force by January 1, 2006, but even this will represent only a modest beginning in terms of our goals."

Economics are not the only item on the agenda. Leaders are expected to create a regional disaster management center, to be based in India, following the colossal devastation caused by December's Indian Ocean tsunami and the October earthquake in Kashmir. Tens-of-thousands of people across the region died in the disasters, and millions were left homeless.

Terrorism is also a key concern, and leaders are also expected to discuss new ways to combat it together.