Myanmar junta chief Than Shwe met top Chinese leaders on Thursday in further signs of Beijing’s long—term support for his repressive regime ahead of controversial elections.

Wu Bangguo, chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, told Gen. Than Shwe that after decades of relations the two nations “are already old friends.”

“Yesterday you met with President Hu (Jintao), and this morning he told me he was very satisfied,” said Mr. Wu, China’s No. 2 leader. “After you return from this visit, we wish continued development in Myanmar.”

Gen. Than Shwe received a ceremonial welcome on Wednesday and held private talks with Mr. Hu, China’s top leader, who said Beijing valued its relations with Myanmar and pledged long—term support to its resource—rich neighbour.

“The policy will remain unchanged regardless of changes” in the international situation, Mr. Hu was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Gen. Than Shwe also met Premier Wen Jiabao on Thursday. He is to visit the World Expo in Shanghai and the manufacturing centre of Shenzhen in southern China before ending his state visit.

China has long been Myanmar’s main source of diplomatic support, shrugging off international criticism of the junta’s status to deepen ties.

The junta plans to hold elections in November, the country’s first in two decades, which it says will be a key step in shifting to civilian rule after decades of military domination. Critics say the balloting is a sham and that the junta is unlikely to relinquish control.

China has defended the elections, calling on other nations not to interfere with them.

Some analysts say Gen. Than Shwe’s visit is a signal that Beijing is drawing even closer to Myanmar, hoping to cement its long—term influence with its neighbour, which is impoverished despite being rich in natural resources, including timber, minerals and oil and gas deposits.

The countries have enjoyed strong ties in recent years, though there was some friction when fighting between government forces and ethnic groups sent tens of thousands of Myanmar refugees across the border into China last year, resulting in a rare warning from Beijing.

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