August 2, 2008 / 4:37 AM / 10 years ago

South Asia leaders urge joint terrorism fight

COLOMBO (Reuters) - The leaders of South Asia called for fighting terrorism together as a regional summit overshadowed by worsening ties between India and Pakistan, its biggest members, opened on Saturday.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepares to sign a visitor's book at International Airport in Colombo August 1, 2008. REUTERS/Buddhika Weerasinghe

The leaders of the eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) plan to sign four agreements, including one on legal cooperation to combat terrorism at the summit in the Sri Lankan capital.

The two-day summit will also frame a declaration on food security for a region which is home to a fifth of humanity and remains one of the poorest in the world.

But concern about terrorism dominated the summit as speaker after speaker underscored the need to fight terrorism unitedly, alongside securing food and energy security.

“The challenges of terrorism must be overcome in order for us to realise the potential of greater regional integration... greater economic integration,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said.

India and Pakistan’s prime ministers too called for defending the value of pluralism from terrorism, and said a united fight was needed against violence if the region was to grow.

Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Bangladesh make up the rest of SAARC, formed 23 years ago to boost economic growth — an agenda held back by old rivalries among members.

SAARC summits have often failed to rise above the squabbles of India and Pakistan, mainly over the disputed Kashmir region, hurting progress on issues central to the bloc.

The summit’s atmosphere is tense with India saying the four-year-old peace talks with Pakistan were at their lowest point after it suffered a spate of bomb attacks last month.

“This (terrorism) is certainly one of the issues which for us is a very important part of the issues in the summit,” Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said.

“If we want to carry the SAARC’s economic and social agenda forward it’s essential that we manage to do this in an atmosphere free of violence.”

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani were due to meet later on Saturday to try and salvage the peace process.

Security problems are roiling other SAARC nations too.

While Afghanistan battles a resurgent Taliban and its effects singe Pakistan’s western borders, a long conflict drags in Sri Lanka. Nepal still does not have a government and Bangladesh’s army-backed administration struggles to hold elections.

The meeting is also being held in a country fighting a 25-year civil war, with the government pursuing a strategy to gradually retake rebel strongholds amid an almost daily barrage of land, sea and air attacks. The conflict has killed over 70,000 people.

A thick security blanket drapes Colombo with most parts of the city locked down. Leaders were brought from the airport in helicopters, while roads below were guarded by more than 19,000 police and military guards armed with automatic weapons.

Trains were emptied while sniffer dogs looked for explosives. Sri Lankan authorities also cancelled all flights for a week from a northern town, once a stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels, who are credited with perfecting the suicide bomb.

Progress at SAARC has been stymied due to domestic politics such as Pakistan refusing to give India special trade preferences.

Intra-SAARC trade remains at just over five percent of South Asian nations’ total trade, compared to other regional forums such as Asean’s internal trade at 26 percent and EU’s 55 percent.

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