Sri Lankan PM in India for Trade, Bridge Talks

June 10, 2002 - 0:0
COLOMBO-- Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is looking to seal key energy deals and expand a bilateral trade pact, in a bid to spur his war-battered island's economy, during a visit to giant neighbor India this week.

Wickremesinghe, architect of a peace deal with the Tamil Tiger rebels, kicked off his second trip to India since his election last December with an informal visit to India's technology capital of Bangalore on Sunday.

His official trip starts today, and he will meet Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, opposition leader Sonia Gandhi and President K.R. Narayanan before returning home on Wednesday.

"During the visit several vital decisions would be made regarding trade affairs between two countries," the prime minister's office said in a statement.

In New Delhi, Wickremesinghe will finalize an agreement to lease about 100 oil tanks in the strategic Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee to state-run Indian oil corporation.

Sri Lanka's Board of Investments Chairman, Arjunna Mahendran, told Reuters that India's largest refiner would use the World War II era tanks to store bulk oil and safeguard its petroleum supplies.

Trincomalee, home to Sri Lanka's largest naval base, has long been viewed by the Tamil Tigers as the capital of a separate Tamil state they have been fighting for since 1983.

The government and the guerrilla group entered into a Norwegian-brokered truce in February to end 19-years of fighting and peace talks are planned for June or early July, moves many hope will trigger foreign interest in the war-shackled economy.

Talks with Vajpayee could also cover a deal allowing Indian oil to enter the island's state-dominated fuel market.

Officials have said Wickremesinghe would sign a memorandum of understanding during his trip.

The prime minister will also join Trade Minister Ravi Karunanayake, already in India, to discuss an expansion of the India and Sri Lanka free trade agreement, the statement said.

The deal, signed in 2000, has had limited success in boosting trade between the neighbors, separated by only 22 kilometers of water at the narrowest point.

Sri Lanka's imports from India totaled 53.75 billion rupees ($559 million) last year compared to exports of just 6.43 billion rupees, a gaping trade imbalance Wickremesinghe hopes to address.

The prime minister's office said the two sides would also talk about a proposal to build a bridge over the Indian Ocean connecting southern India with northern Sri Lanka, a popular boat route before the island's war made trips unsafe.

"They are keen on having a bridge between Rameswaram in India and Mannar Island in Sri Lanka," Mahendran said.