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Nov 26, 2014 2:37 AM

South Asian leaders gather at regional summit

The Associated Press

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) South Asian leaders, including from rivals India and Pakistan, gathered in Nepal's capital Wednesday to boost cooperation in trade and energy and seek greater peace in the region, home to more than a fifth of the world's population.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit, the first since 2011, is meant as a forum to discuss regional issues, but is usually dominated by the rivalry between Pakistan and India. It is supposed to be held annually, but is often shelved due to member nations disagreeing on meeting dates.

At this year's gathering in Katmandu, the possibility of a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, threatened to shadow the proceedings.

In his opening remarks at the summit, Modi recalled the 2008 attacks on the Indian financial capital of Mumbai, in which Pakistani gunmen killed 166 people over four days, beginning on Nov. 26. Relations between India and Pakistan were frozen after the attacks, and not much progress has been made to restore bilateral ties to normalcy.

"If we are sensitive to each other's security and lives or our people, we will deepen friendship, spark cooperation and advance cooperation in our region," Modi said. "Let us work together to combat terrorism."

Sharif's presence at the Indian prime minister's swearing-in ceremony after Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party won an overwhelming majority in Indian general elections in May had raised hopes that the neighbors would revive peace talks. But the hopes were dashed when India called off official-level talks in August, upset that Pakistan's envoy to India had held discussions with Kashmiri separatists.

"My vision for our region is a dispute-free South Asia where instead of fighting with each other, we jointly fight poverty, illiteracy, disease, malnourishment and unemployment," Sharif said at the summit.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir. Both countries control parts of the Himalayan region but claim it in its entirety.

On Tuesday, Indian officials signaled that differences between the two countries remained unresolved when they announced that Modi would not have a bilateral meeting with Sharif. Modi was scheduled to hold bilateral meetings with the leaders of all the other members of the regional group.

They will, however, have a chance to meet at a dinner being hosted Wednesday night by Nepal's prime minister, and at a retreat planned for Thursday at a mountain resort near Katmandu.

Leaders from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are expected to sign agreements on the sharing of railroads, highways and energy at the two day-summit, which ends Thursday.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he hopes to bring energy from Central Asia to South Asia.

Pakistan's Sharif said: "We need to focus on collectively harnessing indigenous energy potential. We should also consider arrangement for cross-regional gas and oil pipelines."


Associated Press writer Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.


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