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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 March 2007, 17:16 GMT
'First' S Asian car rally begins
By Waliur Rahman
BBC News, Dhaka

The car rally starts in Cox's Bazar
The rally is intended to unify the region (Picture by Focusbangla)
One of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's dreams came true when a South Asian car rally flagged off on Thursday from the south-east of Bangladesh.

The rally - which organisers say is the first of its kind in the region - began from the resort town of Cox's Bazar.

About 100 participants, including celebrities, sportsmen, government officials and journalists, packed 26 jeeps for the nearly 8,000km rally.

They will travel through Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

'Expand goodwill'

The rally, which finishes in April, will take drivers through much of South Asia's varied terrain - from flat delta and deserts to winding mountain roads.

Manmohan Singh
The rally is a dream fulfilled for the prime minister

Organisers stress there will be no competition, and each vehicle is likely to carry a multinational crew.

"It's meant to expand goodwill, tourism, culture and business ties," Hafizur Rahman Bhuiyan, head of Bangladesh's state-run tourism corporation, told reporters.

The Indian prime minister proposed the rally in the run-up to a summit of South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc) leaders, scheduled for next month in Delhi.

He argued that it would provide a new impetus towards reconnecting the various countries of the South Asia region.

The head of Bangladesh's interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, flagged off the rally amid much fanfare on Thursday.

International car rallies are not common in South Asia, partly because the region's turbulent history has always made such events difficult to stage.

Dancers at the start of the rally
The rally started amid much fanfare (Picture by Focusbangla)

Prime Minister Singh said that such an event would "symbolise the region's identity", "highlight connectivity" and "draw attention to the need to improve the transport infrastructure in South Asia".

Popular Bangladeshi television actor Tony Diaz is taking part in the rally with his dancer wife Priya.

Noble objectives

"We'll be waiting for the day when the people of Saarc countries will be able to visit each other without any visas," he told reporters before the rally.

The rally will focus attention on "our rich cultural heritage, our shared history, encourage people-to-people contacts and generate goodwill," the Indian External Affairs Ministry said earlier in a statement.

But behind the scenes, officials admit that much work needs to be done before such noble objectives can be met.

South Asian countries may export goods worth more than $100bn a year, but regional trading between them remains very low.

"In fact, intra-Saarc trade was about 6% of their total exports a few years ago, but now it has come down to around 5%," said Dr Mustafizur Rahman, an expert on international trade with the independent Centre for Policy Dialogue research group.

"This initiative should be backed by the signing of a unified customs procedure for the movement of goods and also the development of road infrastructure within the region," he said.

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