South Asia

Sri Lanka unveils new China-funded seaport in south

Sri Lankan dancers perform at the site of a new port under construction at the southern town of Hambantota, Sri Lanka
Image caption It is hoped the new seaport will be an engine for economic recovery post-conflict

Sri Lanka has unveiled a new seaport, the showpiece among a series of big new infrastructure projects on the island.

The port in southern Hambantota was built with Chinese assistance as part of a $6bn (£3.8bn) drive to rebuild infrastructure after the war.

It has four terminals, two for cargo and two for fuel bunkering. A second, equally big, phase is being built.

The government hopes the port will get business from some of the 70,000 ships that cross the Indian Ocean each year.

The first ships will arrive in November.

Sea water was released into the new port by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, breaching the remaining piece of land separating the site from the Indian Ocean.

About a metre's depth of seawater will flow in each day for nearly three weeks.

"It is not sea water that will fill this port, but the future prosperity of our nation. From this port will emerge our true economic independence, " he said in a speech.

Burgeoning ties

For two years, men and machines have been gouging out a huge chunk of Sri Lankan land, says the BBC's Charles Haviland in Sri Lanka.

Mr Rajapaksa paid tribute to the project's financier, China, in his speech. Most of the project's workers are Chinese, employees of two state-owned companies, and China's Exim Bank has lent 85% of the cost.

China is now the biggest lender to Sri Lanka - it is also funding a large coal power station, roads and railways, and an airport near the new seaport.

The government says the ever-closening ties with China are purely commercial.

But some geopolitical analysts speculate that this port's future phases might afford Beijing a naval facility, a prospect that worries Sri Lanka's close neighbour and major benefactor, India.

The government tends to speak of this new port in nationalistic terms, our correspondent adds.

President Rajapaksa told the crowd on Sunday in his home-town that this day revived the same feelings of pride and victory as the end of the civil war did.

"We have dug into the earth, broken great rocks, overcome inland and foreign threats," he said. "We have now entered the path to being the true Wonder of Asia."

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