(AFP) - A summit of South Asian leaders was set to open in Sri Lanka on Saturday, with tensions between India and Pakistan likely to eclipse regional talks on trade, terrorism and poverty.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan's new premier Yousuf Raza Gilani were due to hold their first-ever talks and the highest-level meeting between the nuclear-armed neighbours in 15 months.
They were expected to meet after the ceremonial opening of the two-day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Colombo, and at a time when their four-year-old peace process is under severe strain.
Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said the dialogue was in "a state where it hasn't been in the past four years because we face a situation where things have happened in the recent past which were unfortunate."
India has blamed "elements" in Pakistan -- in other words, its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) -- for the bombing of its Kabul embassy last month that killed about 60 people, including New Delhi's military attache to Afghanistan.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied the allegation.
After the embassy attack, New Delhi said the peace talks with Islamabad were "under stress" but an Indian official said Friday that the dialogue should continue.
Singh will also convey to Gilani India's concerns over bombings a week ago in the Indian commercial cities of Ahmedabad and Bangalore that claimed at least 50 lives. According to Indian media, officials in New Delhi again suspect Pakistani involvement.
There have also been a spurt of ceasefire violations along the Line of Control dividing the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, an area that has been the cause of two out of three wars between India and Pakistan.
A separatist revolt against New Delhi's rule in Indian Kashmir has raged since 1989, but Islamabad denies India's claims that it assists the Muslim rebels, in turn accusing India of fuelling sectarian violence on its soil.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said here Thursday the countries were not interested in trading blame, and instead looked forward to normalising ties.
For the SAARC summit itself, Sri Lankan diplomats said the grouping would move from "declaration stage to implementation stage" after 23 years in existence and after often being dismissed as little more than a talking shop.
Other SAARC members hope the summit will focus on battling poverty, high oil costs and working on developing alternate energy sources and improving infrastructure in the world's poorest region, home to 1.5 billion people.
SAARC, founded in 1985 with the aim of deepening regional economic cooperation, groups Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka, gripped by a bloody ethnic civil war, has imposed unprecedented security for the summit, deploying nearly 20,000 police and troops in the capital, while continuing to pound separatist Tamil rebel positions in the embattled north.