India and Pakistan will hold center-stage when top officials of seven South Asian nations meet in Colombo to revive the stalled South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) grouping and lay the ground for a much-delayed leaders' summit.
SAARC comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka with Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga being the longest-serving head of the grouping.
Foreign secretaries of the member states will meet on Thursday and Friday with the postponed 11th summit of leaders in Kathmandu high on the agenda.
But diplomats said Foreign Secretary Chokila Iyer's meeting with her Pakistani counterpart Inamul Haq on the sidelines of the main meeting is expected to dominate the SAARC sessions.
The informal bilateral meeting will be the first high-level contact India will have with Pakistan since July's talks between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in Agra.
Diplomats in Colombo said this week's meeting would help India and Pakistan build on the deadlocked Agra summit.
Foreign ministry sources said the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries are likely to meet either at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall where the sessions will be held or at the Taj Samudra Hotel where the delegates are staying.
Spadework for the SAARC sessions began on Tuesday when officials started preparatory work on the foreign secretaries' agenda ahead of the main meet.
The two-day official-level meeting had at least two representatives from each member country taking part.
The SAARC standing committee meeting was originally scheduled for June 8, but was put off following the slaying of Nepal's King Birendra and members of his family on June one and delayed for a second time when India and Pakistan held their bilateral summit.
The standing committee was expected to, among other things, discuss holding the next SAARC summit that has been put off since November 1999 because of bickering between India and Pakistan.
The diplomats were also expected to work out dates for the next SAARC foreign ministers' meeting, besides the leaders' summit.
Since the first summit in Bangladesh in 1985, the grouping has had 10 summits with the last in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo in July 1998.
The last ministerial meeting of SAARC was held in the Sri Lankan hill resort of Nuwara Eliya in March 1999 and since then the regional grouping has been virtually stalled as bilateral relations between India and Pakistan turned sour.
The summit scheduled for November 1999 was put off at India's insistence after border clashes with Pakistan and a military coup that saw Gen Pervez Musharraf wrest power in Islamabad.
India's stance came in for criticism from other members of the grouping and Sri Lanka made a concerted bid last year to persuade the two sides to hold the secretaries-level meeting at least.
Indo-Asian News Service
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