With 9000 soldiers posted around the Brazilian capital and military helicopters buzzing overhead, 15 heads of state and top officials from 34 South American, Middle Eastern and North African nations converged on Tuesday for the first Summit of South American-Arab Countries.

"We are facing a historic opportunity to build the foundation for a bridge of solid cooperation between South America and the Arab world," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said.

Pushing a policy goal he has pursued since becoming the first elected leftist leader of Latin America's largest country, Silva urged the participants to fight for free-trade rules that help the developing world's masses who live in misery, instead of benefiting only rich countries and multinational corporations.

Notable absentees

But the summit lost some if its lustre with the absence of leaders from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Even Lebanon's president was a no-show.

See our Special Report on the Brasilia summit

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa had been hoping more leaders would attend, but said the presence of seven of the 22 Arab heads of state was a positive "gauge of the importance of the conference".

Eight of the 12 South American leaders were participating.

Moussa denied speculation that the United States - which was refused permission to attend the summit as an observer - had pressured some leaders to boycott the event, which was to issue a declaration at odds with US policy on issues ranging from terrorism to Israel.

Forging ties

But he said the summit's main point was to strengthen regional ties.

"This summit in its idea, its initiative, is not directed against anyone," Moussa said.

Silva, however, singled out for criticism agricultural subsidies that the United States and Europe give their farmers, saying they must be slashed to ensure that "poor countries receive the benefits of globalisation".

The summit is seeking to bring 
Arabs and South Americans closer

"We want to take concrete and lasting steps in the struggle for development and social justice," Silva said.

The leaders were expected to endorse a "Declaration of Brasilia" on Wednesday, pledging to tighten political and economic links between the regions.

A draft declaration demands that Israel disband settlements in Palestinian territory, including "those in East Jerusalem" and retreat to its borders before the 1967 Middle East war. It also lashes out at US economic sanctions against Syria.

Agreement approved

In a separate ceremony during the day, officials approved an agreement between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Mercosur, an important South American economic bloc, pledging negotiations for a free-trade area linking the two groups.

Mercosur's full-fledged members are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The GCC-members are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.

"We are facing a historic opportunity to build the foundation for a bridge of solid cooperation between South America and the Arab world"

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazilian president

Reporting from Brasilia, Aljazeera's correspondent Dima al-Khatib said officials and businessmen from across the regions were hopeful of forging closer ties.

"The matter will materialise with time.The circumstances are ripe at the moment. Exchange of Information through the Internet, electronic commerce, and the speed of communications are all  helpful factors in this respect. Looking forward for the better all leads to positive results," Ilias Ghandur from the Federation of Arab Chambers of Commerce and Industry said.
 
"We are very enthusiastic because we are going to sign an agreement with the GCC to begin talks for establishing a free trade zone," Laila Rashid De Collis, Paraguay foreign minister said.