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S. Asian Leaders Hold SAARC Summit - 2004-01-03

The leaders of seven South Asian nations were arriving in Pakistan Saturday for a summit, which foreign ministers are predicting will be a historic success.

Free trade and anti-terrorism measures are slated to top the agenda for the three-day summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, known by its acronym, SAARC.

Foreign ministers from the member states say a deal is ready for establishing a South Asia Free Trade Area. Such an accord would dramatically slash tariffs on most goods traded within the region, leading to an expected increase in commerce among the countries.

An agreement on cooperation against the financing of terrorism is also slated for signing by the leaders.

Although a SAARC protocol denouncing terrorism already exists, further agreements have proved difficult for the group, due mostly to animosity between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. India has frequently accused Pakistan of fueling militancy on its soil.

But Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Murshed Khan said talks among the region's top diplomats were able to put aside traditional disputes. "We have been able to overcome all the mental blocks," he said. "Through a very candid discussion, we have overcome all the issues, and we have come to a common platform."

Mr. Khan said the summit will prove a historical milestone for SAARC, remarks echoed by his Pakistani counterpart, Khursheed Kasuri. "This was a great success, and there was a great degree of accommodation that was shown by all the foreign ministers and all the delegates," said Mr. Kasuri. "This bodes well for the future."

Achievements at the summit do not appear likely to include hoped-for one-on-one talks between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Biharee Vajpayee.

Mr. Vajpayee downplayed the chance of such talks before arriving in Islamabad, but said he would be willing to meet President Musharraf at some point in the future.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since their independence in 1947, mostly over the disputed mountain territory of Kashmir.

In addition to India and Pakistan, the SAARC nations include Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives.