Seven South and Southeast Asian countries have ended an economic forum meeting in Dhaka by setting a July 2006 target for signing a free trade agreement between them.
The forum, known as BIMSTEC, was launched in 1997 and includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Bangladesh's top foreign ministry official, Hemayetuddin Ahmed, told reporters the ongoing negotiations are likely to be completed by December to pave the way for a formal agreement by mid-2006.
The agreement covers trade in goods and services, and also investment. It is aimed at boosting economic growth and strengthening the global bargaining power of the southern Asian region. The region is home to nearly 1.3 billion people, or nearly one-fifth of the world's population. BIMSTEC stands for the "Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation."