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Senior US officials visit Sri Lanka to help resolve crisis

Bharatha Mallawarachi

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) – Senior United States (US) officials arrived in Sri Lanka yesterday to find ways to help the island nation in the throes of an unprecedented economic crisis and severe shortages of essential supplies, as the Energy Minister warned that new fuel shipments would be delayed.

The US over the past two weeks has announced millions of dollars in assistance to Sri Lanka, which has been surviving on USD4 billion in credit lines from neighbouring India. It also has received pledges of USD300 million to USD600 million from the World Bank to buy medicine and other items.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week announced the economy had “collapsed” due to dwindling foreign exchange reserves and a mounting debt, worsened by the pandemic and other longer term troubles.

The US delegation was led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Asia Robert Kaproth and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Kelly Keiderling.

During their four-day stay, they will meet a wide range of political representatives, economists, and international organisations to “explore the most effective ways for the US to support Sri Lankans in need, Sri Lankans working to resolve the current economic crisis, and Sri Lankans planning for a sustainable and inclusive economy for the future”, the US Embassy said in a statement.

“This visit underscores our ongoing commitment to the security and prosperity of the Sri Lankan people,” said US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung.

People purchase imported onions and garlic at a market in Colombo, Sri Lanka. PHOTO: AP

She said that as Sri Lankans endure some of the “greatest economic challenges in their history, our efforts to support economic growth and strengthen democratic institutions have never been more critical”.

The US has announced USD120 million in new financing for small and medium-sized businesses, a USD27 million contribution to Sri Lanka’s dairy industry and USD5.75 million in humanitarian assistance to help those hit hardest by the economic crisis. Another USD6 million was committed in new grants for livelihoods and technical assistance on financial reform.

Sri Lanka said it’s unable to repay USD7 billion in foreign debt due this year, pending the outcome of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a rescue package. It must pay USD5 billion on average annually until 2026. Authorities have asked the IMF to lead a conference to unite Sri Lanka’s lenders.

Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera in a tweet on Saturday evening urged people not to line up for fuel, saying new shipments would be delayed due to “banking and logistics reasons”. He said limited stocks of fuel will be distributed to limited stations throughout next week. He said until the next shipments arrive, “public transport, power generations and industries will be given a priority”.

Wickremesinghe said last week that the state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation was USD700 million in debt and as a result, no country or organisation was willing to provide fuel.

Protesters have occupied the entrance to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office for more than two months demanding his resignation, saying the primary responsibility for the crisis rests with him and his family, whom they accuse of corruption and mismanagement.