Disaster management center in India - to tackle poverty

India will host a South Asian disaster preparedness and management center in a region where about 130,000 people were killed over the last year by a devastating tsunami and a deadly earthquake, officials said Thursday. The Indian offer was approved Thursday by foreign secretaries from the seven member nations of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, SAARC. It was to get official sanction at the meeting of foreign ministers in the Bangladesh capital on Friday. The region frequently faces natural disasters. Last month, more than 87,000 people died in an earthquake in the Kashmir region, which is divided between Pakistan and India.

Last December's Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 31,000 people in Sri Lanka, nearly 11,000 in India and 82 in the Maldives.

When approved by the foreign ministers, the Indian offer will be presented at a summit of South Asian leaders this weekend, which is expected to tackle poverty and disaster management in a region where most of the 1.5 billion people are impoverished.

On Friday, the seven foreign ministers of SAARC are also scheduled to sign agreements on customs, double taxation and the establishment of an arbitration council, clearing the way for a free trade area in South Asia by early next year, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said Friday.

But the creation of the free trade area may be delayed if member countries are unable to resolve outstanding issues involving rules of origin and compensation for lost tax revenues.

The weekend summit is also expected to declare 2006-2015 the SAARC Decade of Poverty Alleviation.

At a dozen summits held since SAARC's inception in 1985, member states have adopted resolutions or signed accords on forming a free-trade zone, combating poverty, fighting terrorism, ensuring gender equality, protecting the environment, and many other issues.

But most of the agreements have yet to come to fruition because of regional rivalries, especially between India and Pakistan. A.M.

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