| A Kashmiri lady and a policewoman warm their hands at a peace rally in Srinagar. (AFP)
Islamabad, Jan. 1: South Asian foreign ministers reached an historic agreement on New Year’s Day to put in place a free trade arrangement in the region by 2006.
Pushed by Pakistan’s Khursheed Kasuri and India’s Yashwant Sinha, the Saarc ministers also adopted an additional protocol on terrorism late tonight.
India foreign secretary Shashank described the consensus on the framework treaty on a South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) as a “momentous” decision.
“Safta has been agreed at the informal consultations of the foreign ministers held here today. They described it as an historic process as it would lead to a tremendous upsurge in economic cooperation among Saarc countries,” he said.
The additional protocol on terrorism is based on UN Security Council resolutions that require putting a stop to funding of terrorist outfits.
An agreement on it had got stuck because Pakistan calls militants employing methods of terrorism in their battle for the right to self-determination “freedom fighters”, not terrorists.
Pakistan foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar, who presided over the two-day meet of Saarc foreign secretaries preparatory to the summit starting Sunday, said the two decisions “were taken swiftly”.
All the delegates agreed on the text of the additional protocol on terrorism and there were no differences of opinion, he added.
Observers said the Safta agreement, eluding the grouping since 1998, represents a big breakthrough because India has all along been pushing for it, while Pakistan had so far linked it to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
In the spirit of entente that has set in, Pakistan has obviously dropped that insistence.
Under the treaty, to be adopted along with the terrorism protocol at the two-day meeting of the foreign ministers beginning tomorrow, trade will be freed within a fixed time frame. All products, except a few, will be open for free trade. It will be signed into a pact at the summit that will follow.
Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are the other members of Saarc.
“Consensus was reached at several formal and informal sessions,” Khokhar said.
Asked if the pending question of granting India the most favoured nation status was discussed, he said no bilateral issues were taken up.