PM leaves for SAARC summit, to push for free trade


New Delhi : Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left Wednesday for a four-day visit to attend the 17th SAARC summit in the Maldives where he will push for liberalisation of trade in the region and also meet his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani.

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He will hold bilateral talks with South Asian leaders on the margins of the eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit.

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai will be part of the prime minister’s delegation for the two-day SAARC summit that kicks off in the picturesque Addu Island Thursday afternoon.

The 17th SAARC summit is themed “Building Bridges” and will culminate in a joint declaration Friday.

Four agreements, which includes a pact on creating a seed bank to boost agricultural productivity and another pact on setting up a rapid action force to combat natural disasters like cyclone and quakes, are expected to be signed at the summit.

Ahead of his visit to the Maldives for the SAARC summit, Manmohan Singh pushed for liberalisation of trade in the region and said he looked forward to bilateral discussions with South Asian leaders.

“At the SAARC summit, we expect to move forward the procees of liberalisation of trade under the South Asian free trade area agreement,” Manmohan Singh said in a departure statement.

“We also expect to sign agreements on implementation of regional standards, multilateral arrangements on recognition of conformity assessment, rapid response to natural disasters, and establishment of a SAARC seed bank,” Manmohan Singh said.

The prime minister stressed that India will work “to promote regional integration as well as the development of a South Asian identity at the forthcoming summit”.

“On the margins of the SAARC summit, I look forward to the opportunity of holding bilateral discussions with other South Asian heads of state and government who will be participating in the summit,” Manmohan Singh said.

Manmohan Singh will hold bilateral talks with the leaders of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, the Maldives and Bhutan on the margins of the two-day SAARC summit.

But all eyes will be on the talks Manmohan Singh will have with Gilani, which is likely to take place Thursday.

This will be the first official talks between the leaders of India and Pakistan since they last met in Thimphu last year on the margins of the SAARC summit and the first since the two countries resumed their stalled peace process early this year. Since then, much water has flowed down the bridge, with Islamabad making some positive gestures recently that have struck a chord with New Delhi. Gilani and Singh had met in Mohali on March 30 during the India-Pakistan Cricket World Cup semi-final.

Manmohan Singh will hold bilateral talks with Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed Saturday before he returns to New Delhi after a four-day visit to the Indian Ocean island.