COLOMBO (AFP) — A summit of South Asian leaders opened in Sri Lanka on Saturday, with tensions between India and Pakistan seen eclipsing regional talks on trade, terrorism and poverty.
The summit was inaugurated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, outgoing chairman of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
"It is a matter of privilege and great honour for me to declare the 15th SAARC summit open," Singh told the eight-nation gathering in the Sri Lankan capital being held amid tight security.
Singh was due to meet later in the day with his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to discuss the strained peace process between the two countries.
The discussions, the first between the two premiers, will be the highest-level meeting of the nuclear-armed neighbours in 15 months.
The meeting was slated a day after Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said the bilateral dialogue was in "a state where it hasn't been in the past four years because we face a situation where things have happened in the recent past which were unfortunate".
India has blamed "elements" in Pakistan -- by which it refers to the state spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) -- for a bomb attack on its Kabul embassy last month in which about 60 people were killed, including New Delhi's military attache to Afghanistan.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied the allegation.
Singh will also convey to Gilani India's concerns over bombings a week ago in the Indian cities of Ahmedabad and Bangalore that claimed at least 50 lives. Indian media have reports that New Delhi again suspects Pakistani involvement.
There have also been ceasefire violations along the Line of Control dividing the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, an area that has been the cause of two out of three wars between India and Pakistan.
A separatist revolt against New Delhi's rule in Indian Kashmir has raged since 1989, but Islamabad denies India's claims that it assists the Muslim rebels, in turn accusing India of fuelling sectarian violence on its soil.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Islamabad did not want to trade blame rather than normalise ties.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, whose country is gripped by a deadly ethnic civil war, told the summit most countries in the region face "the curse of terrorism that threatens the peace and stability that is needed so much for the forward march of our people."
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, battling a Taliban-led insurgency, said: "We need collective action to wipe out terrorism in the region."
A Sri Lankan diplomat said SAARC would move from the "declaration stage to implementation stage" after being dismissed as little more than a talking shop since its founding in 1985.
Other SAARC members hoped to focus on battling poverty and high oil prices, developing alternate energy sources and improving infrastructure in the region that is home to 1.5 billion people.
SAARC, founded with the aim of deepening regional economic cooperation, groups Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has imposed unprecedented security for the summit, deploying nearly 20,000 police and troops in Colombo, while continuing to pound Tamil rebel positions in the embattled north.
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