Vol. 4 Num 36 Wed. July 02, 2003  

Pakistan wants South Asia free trade talks in August

Pakistan on Monday said it had suggested to India that the next round of South Asian free trade talks take place in August.

"We are committed to SAFTA (SAARC Free Trade Agreement) and... to negotiations," Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan said at a weekly briefing.

"What we have suggested to India and other members is that these negotiations be held sometime in late August."

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) -- a regional grouping founded in 1985 -- comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Four rounds of talks have already been held.

"We are looking forward to participating in the fifth round and I think that if South Asia moves towards free trade area this would be a big positive development," Khan said.

Khan said Indian claims that Pakistan was not fully cooperating were "a misperception."

Foreign secretaries of SAARC countries are to meet next month in Nepal's capital Kathmandu to finalise the dates of a summit-level meeting of leaders.

Over the past decade, SAARC heads-of-state summits have become a favoured hunting ground for India and Pakistan to rake up bilateral disputes over Kashmir.

The 12th SAARC summit was supposed to take place in Islamabad in January this year but was put off due to hostilities between the neighbours.

Since the January postponement, however, dramatic changes have unfolded on the subcontinent.

On April 18, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee offered a surprise "hand of friendship" to Pakistan, ending a 17-month deadlock following a militant attack on the Indian parliament that brought the two countries close to war.

The offer was reciprocated by Pakistan with President Pervez Musharraf hailing it as a "good beginning."

Both sides have since appointed new envoys and are set to revive road links.

Pakistan's ambassador-designate to India Aziz Ahmed Khan travelled to New Delhi on Monday to take up his new post in the most visible sign to date of reconciliation.