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The Laotian government has agreed to develop the area close to the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge in Khammuan province as the Thakhek Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to attract foreign investment and boost the local economy.

Under an agreement signed between the government and the zone's executive board in Vientiane on Friday, private companies will spend at least US$80 million (Bt2.5 billion) to develop the 1,035-hectare zone.

The agreement was signed by Industry and Commerce Minister Dr Nam Vinhaket, who is also vice president of the Laotian National Committee for Special Economic Zones (NCSEZ), and Daolay Keoduangdy, deputy director of the Khammuan provincial Department of Planning and Investment, who also chairs the zone executive board.

Khammuan Governor Khambay Damlath, SK-KS Import-Export Co chairman Kosy Phoumsavanh and Chaleun Housing and Construction Co chief Phongsavan Xayaseng signed as witnesses.

The signing ceremony was attended by Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, who is also president of NCSEZ, Government Office Minister and NCSEZ Vice President Bounpheng Mounphosay, and other high-ranking officials.

The third Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge, linking Khammuan province in central Laos to Thailand's Nakhon Phanom province, opened last November and now authorities want to develop this area through various facilities to encourage trade and investment in Laos. The planned developments for the zone include office buildings, healthcare facilities, a shopping centre, a hotel, a conference centre, residential buildings and a logistics centre.

The zone will be built with environmental considerations in mind, as well as safety and the need to preserve the Lao character.

According to government officials, 80 per cent of the zone's total area has already been reserved by private firms interested in setting up operations after seeing the potential for regional integration. The zone will be managed with a one-stop service system and electronically monitored to ensure transparency and accountability.

Supporters of special economic zones say they help accelerate economic growth while at the same time generating opportunities for local people.

As wealth trickles down to local communities, Laos will move closer to its goal of leaving the list of least developed countries by 2020, authorities say.

They point to the country's stable political situation as conducive to foreign investment, while it is becoming increasingly connected to the rest of the region through new roads and bridges.

Besides, Laos provides cheap labour and receives trade privileges from more than 40 countries, paving the way for more business opportunities, the communist government says.