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South Asian Economic Summit Opens in Bangladeshi Capital

The 13th summit of SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, has opened in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. The forum brings together leaders of the region's seven nations, and is intended to find new ways improve trade and alleviate poverty - and, more recently, to combat terrorism.

A flourish of trumpets welcomed the seven South Asian leaders as they arrived Saturday for the inaugural ceremony of the SAARC summit.

The annual meeting is meant to find ways to improve regional trade, and reduce poverty. Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz called for regional cooperation to help the millions in the area left homeless by last December's Indian Ocean tsunami, and last month's Kashmir earthquake.

"These unprecedented natural disasters have brought unimaginable loss of life and property in our region," he said. "I wish to affirm our total solidarity with all the countries who have suffered in these two disasters."

SAARC groups India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives - altogether, one-fifth of the world's population. Leaders hope to finalize plans for a South Asia Free Trade Agreement, making the region an economic bloc along the lines of the European Union.

In the past, progress toward a free trade agreement has been hindered by historic rivalries between nations - especially the two largest, India and Pakistan.

Although the two rivals have embarked on a promising peace process, India still charges that Pakistan allows Islamic militants to use its soil as a base from which to launch attacks into Indian Kashmir. The two nations have gone to war twice over the region, which each claims in its entirety, and India faces an Islamic insurgency in the two-thirds of Kashmir it controls.

In his opening remarks Saturday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh refrained from mentioning Pakistan by name, but he suggested it is cross-border terrorism that has prevented SAARC from progressing further towards its economic goals.

"No member country should allow its territory to be used against the interest of another member country," he said. "There should be zero tolerance of cross-border terrorism and the harboring of hostile insurgent groups and criminal elements. It's only in an environment of mutual confidence, and a collective commitment against the scourge of terrorism, that we can register the progress we all desire in more intense interaction."

Leaders have put forward several new initiatives for helping the region as a whole, including the creation of a disaster management center, and a regional food bank that SAARC members can call on in times of need.