Indian minister in Nepal on 'high-priority' visit

KATHMANDU (AFP) - India's foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said relations with Nepal were "high priority" as she arrived in the Himalayan nation Friday on a visit to bolster New Delhi's influence in a neighbourhood increasingly engaged by China.

Ms Swaraj's trip, which follows a visit last month to Bangladesh, is part of an ongoing campaign by India's new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to renew neglected ties as Beijing makes deeper forays into South Asia.

"The new government of India places high priority on Nepal," Ms Swaraj told reporters at Kathmandu airport.

"I am here with a lot of hopes and aspirations and I believe my visit will make India-Nepal relations stronger," she said.

India has traditionally exerted huge political influence in Nepal and is Kathmandu's sole provider of fuel and its biggest trading partner, accounting for a massive 47 percent of foreign direct investment in the country.

In recent years, however, China has been gradually making its presence felt, spending billions of dollars on infrastructure projects ranging from roads to hydropower plants.

Ms Swaraj will meet Nepal's Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and President Ram Baran Yadav during her three-day stay, which is widely expected to be followed by a visit by Modi early next month, the first bilateral visit by an Indian premier in 17 years.

Nepalese commentators have welcomed Modi's new emphasis on neighbourly ties, with an editorial in the Nepali Times saying the South Asian giant's huge market for goods and services could serve "as a locomotive that can pull Nepal" forward.

"Indian investment can kickstart Nepal's infrastructure and energy development, boost tourism, manufacturing and services to create jobs here," the editorial said.

Impoverished Nepal has been racked by political instability since the end of a 10-year civil war in 2006, when former rebel Maoists laid down arms and signed a peace deal, paving the way for constituent assembly polls two years later.

Since then, the Himalayan nation has been politically paralysed, with the assembly - which also serves as the parliament - perpetually deadlocked over plans to draft a new constitution.