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South Asian nations must "root out terror": India

INDIA: South Asian nations must "root out terrorism" to turn around the fortunes of their underperforming trading bloc, India's prime minister told the start of a regional conference on Tuesday.

"We should implement in a meaningful and sincere manner the commitment and pledge made to root out terrorism to create an atmosphere for our endeavour to succeed," Manmohan Singh told a South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in the Indian capital.

The time has come for SAARC to work together to realise the vision of prosperity, cooperation, peace and development, Singh said.

"We should break with the past and join hands to overcome the challenges," Singh said.

The two-day summit of the SAARC, which groups countries who account for nearly 1.5 billion people or one-fifth of humanity, is set to be dominated by security and trade issues.

The organisation has made little progress since its formation in 1985, largely because of tensions between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars, two over the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shaukat Aziz also called for progress at SAARC.

"Our progress remains short of our aspirations," said Aziz, blaming violence and conflict management that had "drained our energies."

"We have to make SAARC goal-oriented," he said.

SAARC is made up of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - accounting for half the world's poor.

The summit opened with leaders of the seven countries signing a declaration that formally brings in Afghanistan as a new member.

Major powers such as China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the United States will be attending as observers.

Iran has also been given preliminary approval to join with observer status, depite rising tensions between Tehran and the West over its capture of 15 British naval personnel and widespread concerns over Iran's refusal to limit its suspect nuclear programme.

Officials say SAARC member states badly needed to overcome mutual suspicions and work harder if they wanted to inject new momentum into the bloc.

A South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), which came into force last year and was presented as crucial to boosting living standards, is yet to be fully implemented due to bickering between India and Pakistan.

Intra-regional trade remains at just five percent of the countries' total.

Meanwhile The World Bank on Tuesday asked South Asian leaders to adopt bold reforms in a bid to increase trade and investment, relieve energy shortages and foster peace in the largely poverty-stricken subcontinent.

The bank said India should set the pace for regional integration by pushing for a dialogue mechanism to resolve political disputes and launching programs to remove infrastructure bottlenecks and trade barriers.

"This meeting taking place in New Delhi is quite unique and in many ways presents opportunities that previous summits have not - one is the fact that India is chairing," said Praful Patel, the Washington-based World Bank vice-president for the South Asia region.

"There is also a new wind blowing in India - their sights have shifted from just the local neighborhood, meaning India, to the global stage and therefore, performance of the region as a subcontinent is important," he said.

Patel said South Asia, unlike Europe, did not have the luxury of time for regional integration as it was "the least integrated region in the world."

"In a fast globalizing world, where the entire globe is in fact opening up for exports, you cannot really wait because market share lost once is very hard to get back and you need to really act faster," he said.

"Intra-regional trade in South Asia can increase to 20 billion dollars by 2010 if trade barriers are lifted," Patel said.

Benefits from energy trade can also be huge, he said. Nepal has the potential to produce more than 40,000 megawatts of hydro power, most of which could be exported to India, generating six to 10 billion dollars per year of revenues to Nepal, he said.

"The more the public in the region are aware of these forgone benefits, the more likely they are to demand greater openness," he said.

AFP

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