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India set to supply food to Jaffna but...

New Delhi wants Sri Lankans to arrange vessels to carry the cargo and also guarantee their security, reports PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Nov 01, 2006 18:59 IST

India is all set to supply food to the beleaguered and starving Jaffna, but the unresolved issues of transport and security are holding up movement, an official source in New Delhi told Hindustan Times.

India has made it clear to the Sri Lankans that they will have to arrange vessels to carry the cargo and also guarantee their security.

In September itself, New Delhi had lifted the ban on the export of sugar and dhal and offered Sri Lanka a one-time supply of 6,000 tonnes of sugar and 2,000 tonnes of dhal to help Colombo tide over the crisis in Jaffna which was precipitated by the war and the closure of the A9 main supply route from the south.

Given the huge controversy over the "food drop" which preceded the Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka in July 1987, India did not want to take the food to Jaffna itself.

It wanted the Sri Lankan government or Sri Lankan private traders or an international agency, to undertake transport and distribution.

Shortage of ships and lack of guarantee from LTTE

But the Sri Lankan government (and the private traders) have been unable to find ships to carry the cargo.

They have also been unable to give a guarantee of security because the LTTE has said that it is against sea transport and has been insisting that the Sri Lankan government open the land route, the A9 highway, on the grounds that it is the shortest, easiest and the cheapest route.

But Colombo has said a firm "no" to the LTTE in this matter, on the plea that opening the A9 will be a great security risk, and that an open A9 will only help the LTTE extort millions of rupees from the users through its illegal taxes.  

The government insists that the LTTE should allow unhindered sea transport and cooperate with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which would be escorting the vessels.

But the LTTE would not give any such guarantee. And, in the absence of a guarantee from the rebels, the ICRC has refused to provide escort.

Despite the difficulties, the government has sent some food and other essentials by sea with under naval escort. But there aren't enough vessels to keep up the supply.

As on date, only a fourth of the needs of Jaffna's six lakh residents are being met. There is a looming humanitarian crisis there.

Two ships bought, but security issue remains

On Wednesday, the government signed a deal to purchase two vessels. And there were plans to buy one more with a capacity of 8,000 tonnes, the Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told Hindustan Times.

But the issue of security remains. Security has to be assured by the LTTE. Will it give such an assurance?  

The LTTE has made the opening of the A9 a prestige issue. The Geneva II parleys late last month, had failed over this issue.

Given the fact that Colombo continues to reject the demand to open the road, it is highly unlikely that the LTTE will give up or modify its stand.

But, at the same time, the LTTE has to think of the plight of the Tamils of Jaffna. How long can it look on while these people starve?

Traders say deal can be worked out

However, private traders who had been importing food for Jaffna from India in the past, are confident that the issues can be sorted out to every party's satisfaction. 

They say that if the government gives the nod, an arrangement with the LTTE can be worked out.