COLOMBO, July 31: Sri Lanka on Wednesday praised Pakistan for backing the government in its fight with Tamil rebels.

Speaking at a banquet in honour of President Musharraf, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said Pakistan had consistently supported Sri Lanka in the course of the last two decades on matters related to our ethnic conflict.

Kumaratunga also praised President Musharraf for his support of the US coalition against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

“As a country that has suffered much from terrorism and sectarianism in the past, we hope very much that the burdens you have borne, and still carry, can be lifted soon,” she said.

Besides supplying arms for Colombo’s war with Tamil Tiger separatists, Pakistan provided emergency military shipments in early 2000 when the rebels threatened to overrun northern Jaffna peninsula.

Earlier, President Musharraf was accorded a warm welcome on his arrival at the Bandaranaike International Airport at 4:05pm PST.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, accompanied by his wife Maithree, and Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando were present to welcome the president and his 17-member delegation. A 21-gun salute was presented to President Musharraf.

Security was tight with a highly-visible military presence and roads closed for President Musharraf and his delegation. More than 3,000 policemen have been deployed in addition to a special army guard.

Signing the golden visitors books after arrival here, President Musharraf expressed the confidence that relations between Pakistan and Sri Lanka would grow stronger in the days ahead.

The president conveyed good wishes of the people and the government of Pakistan to the people and the government of Sri Lanka.

Later, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called on President Pervez Musharraf.

Matters relating to bilateral relations and regional and international interest came under discussion.

Formal talks between Pakistan and Sri Lanka will be held tomorrow (Thursday). The two sides are also likely to ink various agreements to boost bilateral ties.

President Pervez Musharraf and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are expected to discuss bilateral relations, regional and international issues including Kashmir.

The president will brief Sri Lankan leader about the initiatives taken by Pakistan to defuse tension with India.

President Musharraf was expected to sign a free-trade agreement after talks with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Thursday that could boost tea and garment exports to Pakistan.

Trade between the countries has been low, totalling less than $100 million in 2000.

Trade between Sri Lanka and Pakistan has more than doubled in the past decade, from 3.3 billion Sri Lankan rupees ($347 million) in 1990 to 8.8 billion ($916 million) last year, according to Ravi Karunanayake, Sri Lanka’s minister of consumer affairs.

He said Sri Lanka had a trade deficit to Pakistan of 4.4 billion rupees.

Prime Minister’s office sources said other than trade and bilateral issues, improving regional cooperation would be one of the matters to be discussed between the two leaders.

President Musharraf leaves for Pakistan Thursday evening.

President Musharraf is the first head of state to visit since Wickremesinghe’s government was elected in December.

Wickremesinghe has launched a peace bid and has signed a ceasefire with the rebels fighting for a separate Tamil state in the north and east of the island.

Direct peace talks to permanently end the war that has left more than 64,000 dead could start in Thailand within months. —Agencies

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