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Sri Lanka Vows Secure SAARC Summit Despite Increasing Tamil Tiger Attacks

The 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is scheduled to be held in less than two months, in the Sri Lankan capital. The government there is reassuring member countries it can provide adequate security for the attending heads of government, despite increasing attacks by the Tamil Tigers in and around Colombo. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman, in our South Asian Bureau in New Delhi, has this report.

Leaders of eight South Asian nations are scheduled to meet in Sri Lanka at the end of next month for the annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. High-ranking envoys from several other observer nations will also attend the region's most significant diplomatic conference.

The host government is seeking to reassure nervous delegations that adequate security will be in place. In recent months, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have escalated bombing, in and around the capital, targeting trains, buses and government ministers.

Media reports quote Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa as informing SAARC Secretary General Sheel Kanta Sarma that all necessary security measures will be in place to protect the one thousand delegates and several hundred media personnel.

The executive director of the Colombo-based Regional Center for Security Studies, Syed Rifaat Hussain, says the capital is as secure as any place in the region to hold the summit.

"Of course, one can never rule out the possibility of a bombing attack. And, I'm sure, that the Sri Lanka government is cognizant of that," he said. "Colombo is really as dangerous or as safe a place as any place else in South Asia."

Maldives originally had been selected as the site for the 15th SAARC summit. When the island nation's officials said they would be unable to host, Sri Lanka stepped in and announced the summit would be held in the ancient hillside capital, Kandy. However, security concerns prompted another change of venue, to Colombo.

This year's summit is considered critical, as the region faces a growing crisis of over rising fuel and food prices, which have the potential to trigger civil unrest.

Hussain, at the Regional Center for Security Studies, expects these will be major issues for the eight-day summit, which begins July 27.

"Energy and the impending food crisis will be the focus of discussion," he said. "Even though we have not seen the agenda. But, I think, this will be definitely part of the informal consultations, if not the formal deliberations."

SAARC has been criticized for achieving little, despite its high-profile annual meetings and lofty declarations. But analysts note that, in the last couple of years, the association appears to be gaining traction - especially in terms of regional counter-terrorism cooperation and creation of social programs.

SAARC is composed of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Also expected to attend this year, as official observers, are: China, the European Union, Iran, Japan and the United States.