Washington: Southeast Asian nations launched a nearly USD 500 million fund to build infrastructure, pooling resources in hopes of closing the gap between the dynamic region and major wealthy economies.

In a step toward an ambitious goal of regional economic integration by 2015, Finance Ministers of the ASEAN bloc said the fund would offer loans to build roads, railways and other projects without direct foreign assistance.

"Our community is now being built with speed. This is a milestone," ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said on Saturday after ministers signed the pact in Washington on the sidelines of annual World Bank and IMF meetings.

"The time for donations, the time for just gifts, is over. We have to be very innovative, we have to be very collaborative in our approach."

Despite booming growth rates and world-famous buildings, ASEAN on a per capital basis lags behind major advanced nations in access to highways, railways, clean water and electricity.

The ASEAN Infrastructure Fund will start with USD 485.2 million and aims to finance six projects a year. By 2020, ASEAN hopes the fund will offer USD4 billion in loans and that its total leverage will be worth more than USD13 billion.

The fund will be based in Malaysia, the biggest contributor with a USD 150 initial investment. Indonesia is the second largest contributor with USD 120 million.

The Asian Development Bank, the Manila-based regional financial institution to which Japan and the United States are the largest contributors, will provide USD 150 million and eventually offer 70 percent of financing for the fund.

The ADB will administer the fund and ensure that all investments are financially sound, the bank's President Haruhiko Kuroda said.

Myanmar will not initially participate in the fund but may join in the future, ASEAN officials said. Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, is one of the least developed members of the bloc and its military-backed government has long posed a dilemma for regional integration.

Thailand will not participate immediately as it must go through domestic procedures but it is expected to join, said ASEAN Chief Surin, who is Thai.

ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

(Agencies)