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Pakistan to Hold SAARC Talks on Schedule - 2003-12-27

Pakistan says plans for a summit of regional leaders, scheduled for January 4 in Islamabad, have not been affected by the recent attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf. Officials say the leaders have all confirmed that they will attend.

Some observers had predicted that Thursday's attempt on President Pervez Musharraf's life, the second in 11 days, would derail plans for the summit. But Pakistani Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar told reporters Saturday that the seven-nation gathering would take place on schedule.

He says security will be tight, and should guarantee the safety of the delegates.

"We are giving top priority and the fullest attention to security," he said. "There will be tight and stringent security arrangements during the entire summit period."

Talat Masood, a political commentator and retired Pakistani general, says events like Thursday's failed assassination bid, which killed 15 people, are unfortunately typical in the region.

"The fact is that South Asia is quite prone to terrorism. … I mean, [in] India, two prime ministers have been killed by terrorists," he said.

The summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is expected to focus on terrorism, and on a proposed agreement to lower tariffs among member states significantly.

A draft framework for the trade deal - known as the South Asian Free Trade Agreement, or SAFTA - is currently under negotiation.

Mr. Khokhar says talks have hit a snag, and that one member nation, which he did not name, is holding out for special treatment for the region's poorest countries.

He adds, however, that Pakistan and others are pushing for a deal in time for the summit.

"Pakistan is fully committed to SAFTA and [the] SAFTA process," he said. "We will continue with our efforts to reach an agreement on the outstanding issues."

The summit is scheduled to run January 4-6, and is expected to include a meeting on the sidelines between the leaders of nuclear rivals Pakistan and India.

The two countries have made a series of mutual peace gestures in recent months, including a cease-fire between their militaries in Kashmir, the mountain territory that each side claims as its own.