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India to Host South Asia Summit

Leaders from South Asian countries will gather in India in the coming days for a regional summit expected to focus on trade and terrorism. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, Afghanistan will join the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation for the first time as its eighth member.

At their summit in New Delhi, South Asian leaders will look at ways to improve economic integration in a region where economies are growing rapidly, but where trade among member countries is still meager.

A major theme at the summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, will be opening new road and rail links between countries to boost trade. The two-day gathering opens Tuesday.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon says the summit will be an opportunity for the "subcontinent to reconnect with itself and the rest of the world."

"There is no question that the more we can open up the linkages between our economies, the more we can use our complementarities and synergies, and the fact that our economies have developed in different directions and can now complement each other," he said.

The countries also will discuss efforts to combat terrorism in a region that has suffered some of the world's worst terror attacks and where dozens of militant outfits are based.

For the first time since the group was formed in 1985, the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union will attend the summit as observers.

Indian officials say this is a sign of growing international interest in the region.

Political analysts say there is hope the summit in Delhi will present new opportunities for the group.

Since it was formed in 1985, SAARC members have signed several agreements - ranging from free trade to environmental protection. But many have not been implemented due to regional rivalries - particularly the hostility between India and Pakistan. However, a peace process between these two countries has improved the climate.

S.D. Muni, a political analyst in New Delhi, says there are indications that SAARC might be moving beyond rhetoric.

"There are signs of change on two [or] three counts - all the South Asian economies are feeling far more confident and they are registering better growth," he said. "Earlier emphasis on bilateralism has now been given a shift toward greater multilateralism, and thirdly India-Pakistan equation is still not straightened, but there are very strong benign influences on both of them, and with observers coming and new members … coming, the region can look forward to faster progress."

This year Afghanistan becomes the eighth SAARC member, joining India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal.

Indian officials say Afghanistan's entry represents an opportunity for South Asia to connect with Central Asia.

SAARC leaders will discuss the establishment of a South Asian University based in India, and setting up a regional food bank to help in times of natural disasters.