Sri Lanka's prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, says President Bush supports peace talks between the island's government and Tamil rebels. Mr. Wickremesinghe met with the president Wednesday. The Sri Lankan government and the ethnic minority Tamil Tigers signed a peace agreement earlier this year, but have yet to agree on a date to start peace talks.
Mr. Wickremesinghe welcomed U.S. support for Sri Lanka's peace efforts, which aim to end a 19-year civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people. He said, "From the very beginning, when the president of the United States and the government say, 'We're behind you,' that means a lot."
The prime minister is the highest-level Sri Lankan to visit Washington in 18 years. Besides meeting with President Bush, he met with members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as with Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said his government, which is dominated by the majority Sinhalese, has all along been talking about holding peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But he pointed out this process was accelerated by the global war against terrorism that followed the events of September 11. "September 11 created an environment [in] which we thought it will be possible to come to a conclusion and come to an agreement," he said.
The Sri Lankan leader said continuing support from countries like India and the United States is essential for the peace process to move forward.
He added that there can be no lasting peace without economic development, a topic addressed by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
"The president," said Mr. Fleischer, "offered American support for Sri Lanka's pursuit of peace in this endeavor, and economic development and proposed to send several teams to assess how best we can work together in those areas."
Mr. Fleischer added that U.S. Peace Corps volunteers would return to Sri Lanka as soon as conditions permit. As for trade between the two countries, the Sri Lankan leader said he discussed the issue in a meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. He said the two sides will sign a trade agreement before the visit concludes.