COLOMBO (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday launched a 1.2-billion-dollar project largely funded by Tehran to upgrade Sri Lanka's sole oil refinery, officials said.
Ahmadinejad and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse planted an ebony sapling to launch work at the Sapugaskande refinery, just outside the capital Colombo.
The four-year upgrade will triple Sri Lanka's refinery capacity to 150,000 barrels per day from the current 50,000 barrels.
Iran, which supplies 70 percent of Sri Lanka's oil needs, has agreed to pay for 700 million dollars of the upgrade, petroleum minister A.H.M. Fowzie said at the ceremony.
With the upgrade, Sri Lanka hopes to be self-sufficient in aviation fuel and tar.
President Rajapakse thanked the Iranian people for their financial assistance and praised Tehran for showing "the spirit of friendship to assist us to establish a modern oil refinery."
"We should consider this Iranian gift as a contribution to the consolidation of our independence," he said as a smiling Ahmadinejad looked on.
Speaking through a translator, President Ahmadinejad said that Iran has always assisted nations that are seeking independence and trying to be self-reliant.
"Iran has always given development assistance and is not afraid of those who oppose that task since evil forces in the world are not eternal," Ahamedinejad said, adding that bilateral relations had now "reached great heights."
Bad weather, however, prevented the Iranian leader from inaugurating the Tehran-funded 450-million-dollar Uma Oya irrigation project in Wellawaya, south-east of Colombo.
Work on the hydro power project was instead launched by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and senior officials from the visiting 15-member Iranian delegation.
The plant will add 100 megawatts to the national grid once completed in the next four years.
Ahmadinejad, who flew to Sri Lanka from Pakistan on Monday, did not meet the press, but Rajapakse's office said the Iranian president was keen to strengthen political, economic and culture ties.
"Iran had made great strides in the scientific and technical spheres and was ready to share the benefits of these achievements with its friends," Rajapakse's office said quoting Ahmadinejad.
On Monday, officials from both countries signed a deal between the Mahinda Rajapakse Sports Foundation and the Mostazafan Foundation of Iran to develop a sports complex in Sri Lanka.
Colombo has touted Ahmadinejad's visit as an important step in cementing closer ties between both countries, and media here welcomed Ahmadinejad's visit as a new chapter in bilateral relations.
Ahmadinejad left Sri Lanka on Tuesday for India.
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