Colombo / New Delhi: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and five other nations signed a pledge to cooperate in the fight against terrorism in South Asia, home to the most people affected by conflicts in the world. Leaders from the eight nations agreed to assist each other in investigations and prosecutions and to offer legal assistance in fighting terrorism. There is no penalty for failure to comply.
Joining hands: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (second from left) with leaders of other member countries at the Saarc summit in Colombo.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistan counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani joined leaders from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives on Saturday in saying terrorism remained the biggest threat to progress in the region, hampering efforts to eradicate poverty and spur economic growth.
“There was a clear admission in the summit that terrorism has become a great menace in the world and including in our region,” Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said at the concluding session of the two-day summit in Colombo. “South Asia cannot progress unless there is stability in region.”
The group, called the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or Saarc, met amid tensions between India and Pakistan, the region’s biggest countries, over a series of terrorist bombings last month.
Bombings take a toll in the region with al-Qaeda active in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in Sri Lanka where the Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an independent homeland for 25 years.
At least 52 people died in 23 blasts in two cities in India last week. On 7 July, a suicide bomber targeted the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing at least 40 people. The Afghan and Indian governments said the attack was carried out with the assistance of Pakistan’s intelligence service. Pakistan denied the claims.
Singh and Gilani met for the first time on Saturday and vowed to “find a way out” of the current crisis, defusing the stress between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Gilani told Singh he would order an independent inquiry into the attack and both leaders pledged to respect a 2003 ceasefire pact between the two nations, Indian foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon told reporters after the two met.
India-Pakistan hostility has frustrated economic progress in the region. When Saarc was established in 1985, intra-regional trade was 3.4% of the countries’ total. After 23 years, it remains less than 5%, according to the Saarc Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
By comparison, trade among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, accounts for 30% of their total. Intra-European Union commerce contributes about 55%.
The nations in Saarc account for 22% of the world’s population and 2% of its economic output. Officials from Japan, China, South Korea, the US and the European Union attended as observers. The World Bank estimates about 40% of South Asia’s 1.4 billion people live on less than $1 (Rs42.35) a day.
To tackle poverty, Bhutan Prime Minister Lyonpo Jigme Thinley on Saturday offered to host a development fund in the Himalayan Kingdom.
The Saarc leaders also signed an agreement to start the Saarc Development Fund to improve roads, ports and other infrastructure in the region. India has pledged to give $100 million to the fund.