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Lankan leaders defend Indian envoy

india Updated: Sep 09, 2006 00:05 IST
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Sri Lankan leaders on Friday rallied to the defence of Indian High Commissioner Nirupama Rao, denouncing a minister who had accused her of interfering in the island's internal affairs.

Politicians from the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the opposition United National Party (UNP) and Tamil and Muslim groups expressed outrage over Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike's unexpected outburst on Wednesday.

An informed source told the agency from Colombo that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was "furious and angry" over the attack on Rao made in parliament by the minister, a bachelor brother of former president Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The source said the president felt that the remarks were aimed at embarrassing him (Rajapaksa) because the minister was upset that Rajapaksa had taken over the leadership of SLFP, ending the decades of dominance by the Bandaranaike family.

A UNP leader who agreed with the assessment said: "I would say that Rao is playing a very helpful role in trying to resolve our problems, and all of us are surprised by what he said."

The UNP leader, who has good personal equations with both the Indian envoy and the minister, told IANS that Bandaranaike's remarks were "very characteristic of him ... he does these things from time to time".

An SLFP leader who did not want to be quoted by name - "for the sake of decency" - echoed the sentiment. "It is shocking that a minister from our party has made baseless allegations against your high commissioner."

Basheer Segu Dawood, chairman of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), said he was in parliament when Bandaranaike, in the course of a "good speech" on the Sri Lanka situation, suddenly referred to the "pretty" Indian envoy who he said should "look after her embassy and we will look after our own internal affairs".

None of the MPs in the 225-seat house reacted though many looked at one another in visible surprise since the Bandaranaike family has always prided itself as close friends of India.

"We don't agree at all with the observations," Basheer told IANS. "The fact is India is closely linked to our problem and is trying to apply medicines to our wounds. Rao's role in such difficult times cannot be called interference in Sri Lankan affairs."

The SLMC leader described Rao as "a soft lady ... who never meddles in our affairs" and who "is always concerned about the welfare of Sri Lankan people and the country's unity".

Incidentally, in the course of the same speech, Bandaranaike hit out at Pakistani charges blaming Indian intelligence agencies for the Aug 14 attempt to assassinate Islamabad's then envoy in Colombo.

The Sri Lankan government has disassociated itself from the remarks. Rajapakse telephoned Rao and expressed regrets.

Late Thursday, the Indian government credited Rao "with highest professional standards" and said that Indian diplomats never interfered in the affairs of the countries where they were posted.

When IANS tried to reach the minister early Friday to find out why he made the remarks, an aide asked the correspondent to be on the line and then said after a minute's pause: "Minister gone out!"

A member of a Tamil party was far less charitable towards Bandaranaike: "My reaction? Anura is mad."

All those contacted in Colombo underlined the continuing disconnect between President Rajapakse and Bandaranaike, who recently accused the SLFP of treating his sister Chandrika shabbily and threatened not to attend a party meeting but eventually turned up.

One source, however, sought to link Bandaranaike's remarks with the anti-India frenzy being whipped up in Sri Lanka by the Sinhalese-Marxist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and a party of Buddhist monks known as JHU.

Nirupama Rao, a former spokeswoman of India's foreign ministry, is one of the most high profile diplomats in Sri Lanka who is eagerly courted by people of all shades.

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