By Ruma Paul and Manoj Kumar
DHAKA (Reuters) -Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday assured Bangladesh that Moscow was committed to complete a nuclear power project on time, despite obstacles resulting from Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine.
Lavrov, the first Russian foreign minister to visit Bangladesh since its 1971 independence, reached Dhaka late on Thursday for a two-day visit after attending the East Asia summit in Jakarta.
Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abdul Momen took up the issue of timely completion of the nuclear power project and bilateral trade issues with Lavrov, who also offered export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to meet Dhaka's energy needs, officials said.
"Our flagship joint project is construction of the Rooppur nuclear power plant on the territory of Bangladesh," Lavrov said.
"The project is progressing smoothly in line with the schedule, and delivery and charging of first nuclear fuel are expected as early as in October," Lavrov said after the meeting.
Bangladesh is building the first of two nuclear power plants in collaboration with Russian state-owned atomic company Rosatom in a $12.65 billion project, 90% of which is financed through a Russian loan repayable within 28 years with a 10-year grace period.
The construction of the plant has been delayed due to two years of restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and war-related sanctions. In December last year, because of U.S. sanctions on Moscow, Bangladesh denied entry to a Russian ship that was carrying equipment for the nuclear power plant.
The first unit of the plant, with a total generation capacity of 2,400 megawatts, was due to start operation in July next year but is facing a setback over loan repayments.
Bangladesh has faced its worst electricity crisis since 2013, a Reuters analysis of government data shows, due to erratic weather and difficulty in paying for fuel imports amid declining forex reserves and a weakened currency.
Bangladesh was Russia's second-largest trade partner in South Asia after India, Lavrov said, adding the bilateral trade was expected to further increase.
The two countries are also collaborating to find solutions for sending essential commodities from Russia to Bangladesh, and alternative currencies to the dollar are being explored for trade settlements, he said.
Both Russia and Western countries are seeking the support of Bangladesh, which has been reluctant to take sides in the Ukraine war even as it struggles with higher fuel and food import costs.
France's President Emmanuel Macron will also visit Dhaka next week after attending the G20 meeting, aiming to deepen relations with a country experiencing rapid economic growth.
Lavrov will call on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Friday before heading to New Delhi for the G20 leaders’ summit, government official said.
Dhaka has asked Moscow to ensure it uses non-sanctioned ships to deliver equipment for the plant, while urging a resolution of its conflict with its neighbour through dialogue and discussions.
"We don't want war. We want all issues to get resolved through dialogue and discussion," Bangladesh's foreign minister Momen said.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul and Manoj Kumar; Editing by William Maclean)