ISLAMABAD, Jan 2: In a major breakthrough the Saarc Council of Ministers, comprising foreign ministers of the seven-member states, on Friday agreed to present the cleared text of the Additional Protocol to the Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism , the draft of South Asia Free Trade Area Framework Agreement and the Saarc Social Charter to the 12th summit for adoption.
The opening session of the Council of Ministers was marked by "a high degree of understanding and consensus on the Saarc-related issues and some historic and landmark agreements have been reached," Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan announced at a special news briefing later.
The spokesman declined to divulge salient features of the agreed text of the Additional Protocol to the Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism or the Safta framework agreement.
At the outset of the council's meeting, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri was elected as its new Chairman, the spokesman said. Later, the Saarc Secretary-General presented a detailed report which was followed by a report of the Saarc Standing Committee by its Chairman, Mr Riaz Khokhar.
The spokesman said the ministers also considered the "advisability of securing an observer status" for Saarc at the UN. "They also discussed ways to strengthen cooperation at the international forums on issues of common interest to Saarc member states," he added.
SINGLE CURRENCY: The spokesman mentioned that the Council also deliberated on the Indian proposal of a South Asian Economic Union and single currency. He said Pakistan welcomed the proposal as a good long-term objective but it emphasised that such a proposal could only materialise after bilateral disputes were resolved.
When asked if other Saarc countries shared Pakistan's view on this front, the spokesman paused briefly and then said: "I did not attend that session. "The Council of Ministers also discussed some new and innovative proposals to eliminate hunger from South Asia, the spokesman said while referring to the review of the progress on Saarc food security.
The Council also heard the secretary-general's report on the Regional Poverty Profile (RPP) 2003 and decided that review of the RPP will remain a regular feature of all Saarc conferences.
The ministers approved the report of the independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation that contains a set of recommendations for a comprehensive strategy to eradicate poverty from South Asia.
The spokesman said the Council also decided that finance ministers of Saarc countries would interact closely to monitor poverty alleviation. Other areas of cooperation covered by the Council in the Friday session were communications, transport, energy, health, rights of the child, child welfare, and preventing and combating trafficking in women and children.
BILATERAL MEETINGS: On the sidelines of the Council's meeting the foreign ministers of all Saarc countries except India held bilateral meetings with the foreign minister of Pakistan, Mr Masood Khan said. The common themes for the Saarc Summit as well as bilateral and regional issues figured in these meetings.
SYMPOSIUM: Earlier, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India said on Friday that the Saarc ministerial conference had ironed out most of the differences and hopefully the proposed draft Free Trade Agreement Area (Safta) framework treaty will be signed during the forth coming summit scheduled for Jan 4-6
Speaking at a symposium on regional cooperation in Saarc, Pakistan's foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri said great progress had been made during the Saarc ministerial meeting towards the finalization of Safta framework agreement. "We hope that we will be able to sign this historic agreement during the forthcoming summit," he asserted.
The symposium was organized by Saarc Chamber of Commerce and Industry here on Friday. The minister said signing of the agreement would be a giant leap forward in South Asia towards closer regional cooperation in the area of trade and economy.
Answering a question, Mr Kasuri said Pakistan had repeatedly emphasized the need for a composite dialogue with India to resolve all issues of concern to both the countries including of course the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.
To another question, he said that he could not confirm at this time that either the prime ministers of Pakistan and India will meet at the sidelines of the summit. However, he said the ball was in the Indian court whether Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpay want to meet Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali at the sidelines of the summit.
He said that good atmospherics created in South Asia as a result of confidence building measures taken by Pakistan and India had contributed to the revival of the Saarc process. "The progress that we have achieved so far in our deliberation at the Saarc preparatory meetings is a result of these positive developments," he said.
The minister said that an atmosphere of peace and stability through the elimination of all causes of conflicts and mutuality of trust and upholding the principles of equity and justice was an absolute essential to realise the objectives for which Saarc was created.
External Affairs Minister of India Shri Yashwant Sinha at the concluding of the symposium said that they had succeeded on developing consensus on major issues under Safta that would lead to its signing in the forthcoming summit.
"We are making recommendations to the summit for signing the agreement that will be a road to prosperity," he disclosed. Answering a question, the minister said that there were still two major areas where consensus would be needed to be developed among the member countries at the summit before it was signed.
When asked about the areas of differences, the minister said he did not want to disclose those areas right now. The minister said that during his recent visit to Iran, he proposed to the Iranian leadership that India, Iran and Pakistan could form a common market to work together and provide new economic opportunities to the people of all the three countries.
Pakistan, he said, with its unique geographical position at the confluence of the sub-continent, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, could play an invaluable bridge role in connecting an energy hungry India with its booming markets to those of Central Asia, West Asia and the Persian Gulf, he said.
"If Pakistan can find within itself the strength and wisdom to change its current approach towards India, there are immense benefits that it can derive as a transit route for the movement of energy, goods and people. "We could then very well see this entire region rise on the tide of regional cooperation as has happened in the case of Asean," the minister said.
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