Sri Lanka unites on defence ties

Sri Lanka's usually squabbling main parties have united in a rare display of unity to support increased defence and economic cooperation with neighbouring India.

    President Kumaratunga's response a relief to her prime minister

    President Chandrika Kumaratunga's party, which is bitterly opposed to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Wednesday welcomed the outcome of his two-day visit to New Delhi where both countries agreed to enhance their trade and military ties.


    A spokesman for Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) also welcomed India's support for the island's peace effort by linking any interim arrangement to the final solution of the conflict.


    "We welcome the statement released at the end of the visit," Sarath Amunugama said, referring to the three-page joint statement which outlined economic cooperation and agreed to open discussions on a defence cooperation agreement.




    Amunugama said they had bipartisan agreement with the government over relations with India. "We are for regional cooperation, we are for non-alignment," Amunugama said.


    The two countries already have close military ties, with India providing  training to members of the Sri Lankan security forces as well as the police.


    Sri Lanka wants more training opportunities and to buy hardware from India.


    Following Wickremesinghe's talks with his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee and other key ministers, the two sides on Tuesday pledged to forge defence ties and work towards a "Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.


    "We are for regional cooperation, we are for non-alignment"

    Sarath Amunugama
    spokesman, SLFP

    The South Asian neighbours made other announcements on more civilian flights and the prospect of licensed fishing in an attempt to avoid fishermen from the two countries poaching in each other's waters.


    "The two prime ministers discussed the ongoing cooperation in training and supply of equipment to the Sri Lankan defence forces and agreed that the two sides will commence discussions with a view to conclude a defence cooperation agreement at the earliest," a joint statement said.




    The statement did not give details such as dates for the beginning of the negotiations or a time-frame for the forging of the programme, but defence officials there said talks on enhancing training were already underway.


    India once backed Sri Lanka's rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas, but ended up fighting them when they repudiated the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka peace accord which sought to end Tamil separatism.


    India withdrew its troops from Sri Lanka after an acrimonious 32-month presence, during which it lost 1200 soldiers at the hands of Tigers.


    Since then, India has remained aloof from Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict and instead moved to increase bilateral trade which topped a billion dollars last year, thanks partly to a free trade pact signed in 1998.



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