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[DHAKA] South Asian nations are to create two regional centres to detect and respond to natural disasters and emerging health threats such as bird flu.

The seven-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) agreed the plans in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 12-14 November.

India offered to host a regional disaster response centre, while the disease surveillance centre will be set up in Bangladesh.

The SAARC nations will also develop a regional strategy for facing infectious diseases such as bird flu, said Bangladesh's prime minister Khaleda Zia.

Although South Asian countries have not yet reported any cases of bird flu, the past month saw new cases among both people and poultry in East and South-East Asia. The disease has killed 64 people in South-East Asia since 2003.

All SAARC members — Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — have banned poultry imports from affected countries.

After the Indian Ocean tsunami and last month's earthquake in Pakistan, the SAARC members also agreed that it was urgent to improve the region's capacity to deal with such events.

The SAARC leaders welcomed the Indian proposal to host a regional centre for disaster preparation, emergency relief and rehabilitation. They also stressed the need to improve existing SAARC centres for meteorological research and coastal zone management.

They said that authorities in each nation should share information and experiences in disaster detection and emergency relief with each other.

SAARC was founded in 1985 to foster closer economic and social cooperation and alleviate poverty throughout the region.

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