ISLAMABAD -- Leaders of the Economic Co-operation Organisation (ECO) vowed to defeat militancy and promote economic co-operation and stability in South and Central Asia.
The ten-country group held a conference Tuesday-Wednesday (February 28-March 1) in Islamabad. Its member states include Afghanistan, Pakistan and all five ex-Soviet Central Asian states.
Attendees, besides leaders of the 10 ECO countries, included officials from the United Nations and from some friendly non-member states.
Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif chaired the last day of talks March 1. Pakistani TV broadcast the conference live.
Challenges to overcome in ensuring peace and stability include "extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking", Nawaz Sharif said in closing remarks.
Pakistan will promote co-operation in sea, land and airspace connectivity and seek to develop various industries for the betterment of the region, he said, adding that another priority is developing North-South connectivity.
Battling militancy, Islamophobia
Leaders of other ECO countries agreed on coming together to battle militancy and boost the regional economy.
"We must discourage [the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant' (ISIL)] and other militant groups who are fighting in different countries," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at the conference.
He urged accelerated efforts to build regional connectivity and economic development and proposed adding Cyprus as an ECO member.
"We must ... tell the world that Islam is a religion of peace," said Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who decried Islamophobia that conflates Islam with terrorism.
"Peace and connectivity should be pursued collectively," Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal said.
The development of rail transit, roads, the tourism sector, education and technology is vital for development in Afghanistan and other ECO countries, he said, urging the removal of trade barriers that hold back regional trade.
Pakistan recently closed the border with Afghanistan after an uptick in terrorist attacks in recent weeks.
Removing barriers to trade
Leaders from Central Asia also voiced calls for economic co-operation.
Kazakhstani Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev called for co-operation in energy, noting that his oil- and gas-rich country is developing links to Europe, which ECO members support.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov urged "quick progress" in advancing economic co-operation.
The ECO conference was a good opportunity for Jeenbekov to discuss prospects for further mutually beneficial co-operation, said Bakyt Baketayev, a political scientist from Bishkek, giving the example of cross-border transport of goods.
"Kyrgyzstan's shortest sea-bound route passes through Torugart, Kashgar and Islamabad, finishing at the the port of Gwadar," he told Pakistan Forward.
"Cargo for all Central Asian states can be transported through Torugart Pass in Kyrgyzstan," he said, adding that it could be "a huge source of economic development for Kyrgyzstan".
CASA-1000 Project moving forward
Following the conference, Sharif met privately with various participants, including Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.
"The two leaders expressed satisfaction on the progress achieved so far in the economic sphere particularly with regard to [the] CASA-1000 Project, which will soon move into construction phase," Radio Pakistan reported, adding that Sharif and Rahmon both "underscored the need for further enhancing trade, energy and defense co-operation".
The Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000) is a World Bank project launched last May that aims to create a regional electricity market.
"The conference marked another stage in strengthening regional co-operation," said Jakhongir Boboyev, an economist from Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
"Recently, there have been many discussions about implementing the CASA-1000 project," he told Pakistan Forward. "[Rakhmon] committed to ensuring during the meetings in Islamabad that all sides -- Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- correctly carry out the project's implementation."
Pakistani observers weigh in
Pakistani journalists and specialists welcomed the conference as a chance to strengthen regional solidarity against terrorism and for economic growth.
"Some ECO member states like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey face the worst form of terrorism," said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies, referring to massacres like ISIL's bombing of a Sufi shrine in Sindh Province.
"All regional countries must make efforts to rein in terrorism," he told Pakistan Forward.
Participation of ECO member states and other allies at the conference shows their resolve to battle militancy and to foster prosperity, he said.
ECO plays a "very important role" in regional economic development, Ashfaque Hasan Khan, dean of the school of social sciences and humanities at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad, told Pakistan Forward.
He pointed to members' vast holdings of natural gas, coal, gemstones and other natural resources and proposed creating a mechanism to fast-track economic co-operation.
ECO countries must develop road and rail links, remove trade barriers, and facilitate travel and cultural interactions to benefit from growing global trade and openness, said Ali Nasir, a senior anchor at Business Plus TV in Karachi.
"ECO should promote a ... gateway to Europe to gain access to international markets and to open up tourism and other avenues for investment," he told Pakistan Forward.
Erkin Kamalov from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Nadin Bahrom from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, contributed to this report.