From Pramod de Silva in Islamabad
Pakistan and Sri Lanka will sign five historic agreements today, including the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement, marking a major milestone in ties between the two SAARC partners.
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, here on a three-day State visit, will witness the signing of these agreements and Memoranda of Understanding along with Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz this afternoon.
Apart from the protocol to the FTA, the first to be signed by Pakistan with any country, the other agreements cover granting exemption from visa fees by students, technical assistance in the fields of gemmology and jewellery, cooperation between the Pakistani Agricultural Research Council and the Sri Lanka Council for Agricultural Research Policy and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters.
Pakistan will also extend a US$ 10 million credit facility to Sri Lanka on concessionary terms.
The Pakistan-Sri Lanka Business Forum and the Sri Lanka Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the Marriott Hotel will also sign a separate MoU. President Kumaratunga will address the Pakistani business community at this event and Board of Investment Chairman Saliya Wickramasooriya will outline investment opportunities in Sri Lanka, fast emerging as the regional financial hub.
Members of the Sri Lankan business delegation that accompanied the President will conduct one on one meetings with their Pakistani counterparts.
The FTA and the business chambers' MoU are expected to boost trade between the two nations substantially. The comprehensive FTA is the second to be signed by Sri Lanka with another SAARC country. The first was with India, signed in 1998. Under the proposed FTA, both countries will slash duties totally on hundreds of products traded between them.
The Sri Lanka-Pakistan FTA was to have been inked last month, but was postponed in the aftermath of the tsunami tragedy and the deferral of the 13th SAARC Summit scheduled to have been held on February 6 and 7.
According to sources close to the FTA operationalisation, Pakistan will undertake elimination of tariffs on spices, plastics, rubber and rubber products, raw silk and silk yarn, precious jewellery, precious stones, wooden and cane furniture and tea.
Sri Lanka will give market access to Pakistan on items such as oranges, dates, apples, fruit juices, welded pipes, iron and steel products, rice and potatoes.
There will also be a negative list of products both countries deem strategically important and which therefore need to be protected. Pakistan and Sri Lanka will eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers, which will contribute to the establishment of a free trade area.
The Economic Coordination Committee of the Pakistani Cabinet in January gave the green light to institute the regime of no duty, no draw back, Free Trade Agreement with Sri Lanka.
The Joint Economic Commission of the two countries is scheduled to meet in Colombo in April to review the implementation of the FTA and other matters concerning economic cooperation.
The other agreements due to be signed by the two countries will be a boon for educational, agricultural, law enforcement ties. The Sri Lankan gem and jewellery industry will benefit immensely from Pakistani technical assistance.
President Kumaratunga yesterday held extensive talks with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf at Aiwan-e-Sadr (President's House) in Islamabad after a formal welcome ceremony. The two leaders discussed trade, bilateral and regional issues, including the upcoming SAARC Summit. Pakistan is currently the Chairman of SAARC. President Kumaratunga briefed President Musharraf on the reconstruction of tsunami-affected areas in Sri Lanka with international help and the peace process.
Pakistan responded swiftly Lanka's call for help following the tsunami tragedy, sending massive consignments of relief supplies. A State Banquet followed the talks. She also met Commerce Minister Hamayoon Akhtar Khan and Foreign Minister Kaurshid Kasuri at the Marriott Hotel. The focus was on trade and economic cooperation and regional issues. The President will hold talks with Prime Minister Aziz today.
The President is accompanied by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and Housing, Industries, Construction and Eastern Province Education and Development Minister Ferial Ashraff, Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Pakistan Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, several senior Government officials and leading members of the Sri Lankan business community.
The Pakistani print and electronic media are giving wide coverage to the Sri Lanka President's visit. There were special articles in many newspapers including The Dawn, The Nation and the Daily Mail. Security has been tightened in and around the capital city in view of the President's visit.
Sri Lankan and Pakistani flags fluttered in the air at several important locations in the city such as Parliament House, official residences of the President and the Prime Minister and the Airport Expressway.
Pakistani Prime Minister Aziz visited Sri Lanka in November last year and extended a formal invitation to President Kumaratunga to visit Pakistan. The Sri Lankan President was in Islamabad in January 2004 to attend the 12th SAARC Summit. Her previous bilateral visit was in 1997.
President Musharraf was in Colombo in 2002. They had held bilateral meetings in February 2003, January 2004 and September 2004 on the sidelines of several international fora.
Diplomats said the two leaders have moved relations between the two countries to a higher plane.
The President is due to leave Pakistan this evening.
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